On “Holding Up the Universe” by Jennifer Niven

Image result for holding up the universeI can’t imagine anything more difficult for a YA author than penning a second novel when his or her first has been massively successful. In Jennifer Niven’s case, Holding Up the Universe is another heart-breaking, important book, much like her first novel All the Bright Places. She continues to explore themes of pain and isolation in her teenage characters, but in Holding Up the Universe she imbues her central characters–Libby Strout and Jack Masselin–with rare characteristics to further that exploration.

Libby was labeled “The World’s Fattest Teen” after she had to be cut out of her house when a panic attack stopped her breathing. She weighed over 600 pounds and could not stand on her own. After her mother’s sudden death, she attempted to fill the emptiness inside her with something tangible–food. In her worst moment, she realizes she has to change and develops healthier ways of dealing with her loss, losing some weight in the process.

When Libby returns to school for her junior year, she becomes the target of cruel joke, one that binds her narrative to Jack Masselin’s.

Jack has been living with prosopagnosia–“face blindness”–since a fall off the roof of his house at age six. No one knows. He’s developed coping mechanisms and a heady amount of swagger to avoid any sticky situations. But lately, his efforts have been failing.

Once his stupid prank with Libby lands him in a special after school counseling group, he finds that she is the only person he can consistently recognize. Yes, she’s physically larger than everyone around her, but it’s something else, too. She’s magnetic. And their adventures together lead to a domino effect that changes everything for both of them.

The idea of having these two off beat characters come together to challenge preconceived notions of what’s acceptable in society is a commendable idea, and I think Niven does an amazing job of it. I love that she forces readers to really consider why they might revile someone who is overweight.

And Libby is unabashedly herself. A dancer. She honestly doesn’t care what people think of her weight, but the weight of people telling her she doesn’t matter, that she’s nothing, forces her into the painful position of having to wonder about the depth of people’s cruelty.

Libby and Jack’s story is sweet and funny. I can imagine it could become an influential book for any young people who feel out of place.

My only reservations are personal ones. This story did not crack my chest cavity open the way All the Bright Places did. But in all honesty, it was nice of Niven to leave off with a happy ending this time.

On “Mosquitoland” by David Arnold

18718848This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

David Arnold‘s 2015 novel, Mosquitoland, is everything any person who feels out of place would want to read. 16-year-old Mary Iris Malone (or “Mim” for short) is a variation of every young person who feels like the very chemistry of his or her being is wrong, that it does not bode well with the universe at large.

Alas, Mim claims herself and everything she loves with unabashed kookiness and fervor. Nothing and no one will stop her. In this case, her sights are set on getting out of Mosquitoland—the Mississippi town that her father and her stepmother moved her to after Mim’s parents divorced. Just like that, she was forced to leave behind everything she knew in Ohio for a life forced upon her by her overbearing, condescending father and her well-meaning, but aloof stepmother.

Mim is not okay. For weeks, she hasn’t heard from her mother, and she has a sneaking suspicion that her stepmother is hiding her letters. She decides to leave Mississippi on the next Greyhound bound for Ohio. Her mother is the only person that understands Mim. And she knows—unlike Mim’s dad, that she doesn’t need to pop an anti-psychotic pill every day to be okay, to function.

Along the way, Mim meets a cast of characters that help her on her journey from sweet Arlene–an elderly woman who loves Mim’s funky sneakers, to Walt–a kindhearted homeless teenager who loves Mountain Dew and the Chicago Cubs. They travel with her on her journey to the truth, guiding her with their kindness and humor. Nothing can stop her.

Or can it? Arnold writes Mim as a fearless young person who won’t hesitate to assert her individuality and strength at any cost, but there is a sinister undertone to her exuberance. Something happened in her past that affects the way Mim looks at the world and caused her father to clamp down on her life. The reason behind the medication.

In a series of letters to someone named “Isabel,” Mim lists her ticks, neuroses, and defects–her displaced epiglottis that causes her to vomit randomly, the blindness in one eye that she got from staring at the sun during an eclipse, the way she spaces out sometimes and loses herself in memories. Arnold builds this correspondence towards an ultimate confession–towards the heart of the thing that made Mim who she is.

Throughout the novel, Arnold explores all manner of difficult subjects—mental illness, suicide, sexual assault, homosexuality, and the way society treats its lowliest members. Mosquitoland spends a lot of time probing the idea of how we, as humans, pass judgment on each other, and how we sometimes shy away from difficult things in life.

Arnold’s Mim negates fear and self-consciousness with her fierceness, and she works through the heartbreak in her life with a strength that most people do not possess. As a lame, fairly shy teenager, I read this book with wonder and a hint of resentment. Why couldn’t I have been more her as a teenager?

I believe it’s because Mim possesses that level of hyper-intelligence that seems only to exist in YA novels. No one I knew was as smart as that at sixteen, nor as ambitious. But, then again, maybe I led a sheltered life. Arnold’s narrative was enough to make me wish that more people were like her. Strong. Weird. Lover of the downtrodden and disenfranchised. Feisty as hell.

Arnold’s innovative, lovable protagonist will likely go down as one of YA’s most iconic characters. Mim’s unconventional story will speak volumes to every outcast looking to make sense of cruel things around them and how to be okay.

On “Ruin and Rising” by Leigh Bardugo

ruin and risingAfter finishing Siege and Storm, I thought I had a pretty good inclination as to how the third installment of the Grisha trilogy, Ruin and Rising, would conclude the story. As it turns out, I was way off. Way, way off.

I thought Bardugo would go against the grain and have Alina end up with Nikolas, so they could rule Ravka with equanimity and grace…But maybe that was just wishful thinking on my end. (Scratch that–it definitely was. Team Nikolas for life.) At the end, I love that she was the only person alive who could understand the darkness that he still felt in himself. Let’s just say it’s an ideal Fan Fiction avenue that I intend to pursue.

By the end of the second novel, I truly hated the idea of Alina ending up with Mal, or having their lives intertwine any more than was strictly necessary to advance the plot. Alas, Bardugo threw it back in my face in Ruin and Rising where the reader finds out *SPOILER ALERT* that Mal is the descendent of Bagri’s oskatzatsy’a (sp?) sister.

Through the use of merzost, Morozova resurrects his daughter after Baghra, in a fit of rage, uses the Cut on her. Without meaning to, Morozova turns her into the third amplifier, and her descendent, Malyen Oretsev, is destined to follow Alina Starkov wherever she goes and eventually die at her hand.

This twist in Alina and Mal’s fate was unexpected at first, but quickly became the obvious conclusion if the two were going to end up together. While I hate obvious conclusions, Bardugo does an amazing job of building the story up and letting the plot reach its end naturally.

That being said, some of the threads that Bardugo attempts to tie together at the end seem a little far fetched. The idea that Morozova and his human daughter never died when they were thrown into the water in chains feels unlikely. I can’t wrap my head around the idea that a small girl who had just been cut in half could survive with merzost alone.

I was moved, however, at the final resting point of Alina and Mal’s relationship. After all that, they know there weren’t brought together solely by forced beyond their control, but by their own choices. Plus, their supporting cast is one of the best in YA fiction. Tolya, Tamar, Nikolas, and the others are written with outstanding empathy and depth, which adds much needed nuance to what can become a formulaic YA plot.

All in all, it was a solid conclusion to a very well done series, and I can’t wait to start on Six of Crows.

On “Siege and Storm” by Leigh Bardugo

51OGPbo8TzL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Ahhh…I was so eager to get my hands on the rest of the Grisha trilogy after reading the first installment, Shadow and Bone. Every bit of Bardugo’s narrative, character development, and bleak Russian detail captivated me. But as every reader should know by now, these obsessions are never good for one’s health as the following novels are always slight, if not complete, letdowns.

I’ll start with the relationship between Alina and Mal. To be blunt–I hate it. Deeply. With a passion. As separate characters, they’re acceptable. Of course, I care more deeply about Alina than Mal, but together, they’re a catastrophe. I understand the tension and gradual degradation of their relationship is essential to the plot and Alina’s recession into the Darkling’s state of mind, but to my mind, Mal is always wrong.

Trust me, I sympathize with the whole abandoning a successful army career to be with Alina thing, but he didn’t have to do it. His constant sullenness and expectations of Alina are really freaking annoying if I’m going to be honest with you. His burden is far less than hers. Does he have to save the country? Does he have to protect both Grisha and humans from the Darkling’s wrath? Does he have to be a political puppet for the crown? No? Not at all? Didn’t think so, dude. So shut the fuck up.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest. Who else thinks Alina and Nikolai are the true lovers of this story? They understand each other. He’s far less mopey, and is driven toward the same goal as her–saving Ravka. I know he’s not trustworthy, but at least he’s honest about the fact that he isn’t, and, in my opinion, Mal isn’t exactly at the top of the class in that respect either. Nobody is.

Besides the obvious love triangle situation that Nikolai’s presence introduces to the series, his existence is one of the novels most compelling elements. His ambition, constantly overshadowed by rumors of his illegitimacy, is the pulse that that makes the narrative thrive beneath Alina’s increasing desperation and isolation.

To that end, isolation is something Bardugo knows how to explore better than most YA authors out there. The conflicting push and pull relationship she has with her power leaves her stranded from Mal–the only the person she ever loved. And he is all at once afraid, jealous, and angry with her for that very power, which she tells him she would never give up, even if she could.

That sense of power, constantly pushing her closer to the Darkling until the moment of their mutual self-destruction, is the most powerful part of the narrative, and I am, once again, eager to see how it will play out in the third novel, Ruin and Rising.

I hope that last installment has Alina a little less driven by Mal/what Mal thinks/what Mal’s doing. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but one can dream. I want much more Nikolai. There better be much more of him, Leigh Bardugo. He is the greatest character to spring up in this book.

On Deb Caletti’s “Honey, Baby, Sweetheart”

Image result for honey baby sweetheartDeb Caletti’s 2004 novel, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart was selected as a National Book Award finalist, which was, I must admit, my primary motivation for reading it. I’m compelled to read any book that has a certain amount of gravitas or esteem surrounding it; I’m always fascinated by what others consider “good” or even “great” literature. And if I don’t see the good in it, does it mean I have better taste than most people, or does it mean I’m a bad reader.

I was forced to ask myself that question in the middle of Caletti’s novel, which expected to finish in a day or two, but which took me nearly a week. It started of promising enough, but I found that the buildup to Ruby’s relationship with Travis Becker was so abrupt, it nearly gave me whiplash. That being said, Caletti does an admirable job at delving into the reasons why women remain committed to relationships that are bad for them. Because it can’t always be as simple as walking away.

Personally, I had a difficult time with that concept, though I think Caletti’s exploration is what made the novel such a critical success. Growing up, I was always encouraged to rage fiercely against any type of entrapment or persuasion by a significant other. When I was old enough to date, I found myself in a situation where I felt like I was being pushed into situations and interactions that went against who I was as I person, and eventually I raged against that person. I’ve lost all the people I’ve dated to that particular rage, and I’m not the least bit sorry. And because of that, it was strange to see Ruby and her mother give themselves away to it when they knew, and felt, that it went against who they were.

Caletti has moments of brilliant writing where the insights she showcases are genuinely intriguing, but for the most part, her writing was a little heavy-handed. I can imagine that many readers are attracted to that style of writing, but I’m drawn to sparse prose in which writers say a lot through a little. In fairness, I probably would have loved this book when I was a teenager, but my tastes have changed.

I did appreciate the humor of the “Casserole Ladies” who let loose some seriously funny jokes and pranks, but their antics weren’t enough to raise the above the standing I gave it.

For young people out there, or parents who are looking for a book for their child, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart is a worthy choice. It’s an important book for you women to read even though the execution might be a little off-kilter. It’s wholly enjoyable and full of well-developed characters. In terms of summer reading, it’s perfect.

On “The Luxe” by Anna Godbersen

The_Luxe_bookcover2
courtesy of Wikipedia.org

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

I am so late to the party when it comes to Anna Godbersen‘s The Luxe. Where was it when I was going through severe Gossip Girl withdrawals? All that time when I was pining for more Blair Waldorf/Chuck Bass drama, I could have found even juicier stuff in the world of the Holland sisters, Penelope Hayes, and Henry Schoonmaker. Those nouveau riche have nothing on those old New York families; the prestige of family money cannot be bought. Or so those old New Yorkers would have you think.

While Godbersen’s story is essentially a turn-of-the-century Gossip Girl tale of scandal, betrayal, and the filthy rich, it is also an exploration of that crucial time in history where the poorest of poor could make a fortune for themselves and, in an instant, change the very core of society. Men and women are defecting to the wild west where the skies are as wide as people’s dreams. This drive for a better life in which people do not have to serve the wealthy becomes the silent undercurrent of Godbersen’s book.

But make no mistake, the novel is by and large about how the debutantes and eligible bachelors of New York City’s disgustingly wealthy elite juggle their romantic prospects. Juicy scandals and catty attitudes abound in Godbersen’s depiction of New York in 1899. The world is changing, but a few things remain the same for people in Elizabeth and Diana Holland’s set. Diana, the free spirit, could care less about the severity hidden beneath the glittering wealth of her family and friends. She wants to live an adventurous life like one of her novel’s heroines, but unfortunately, she has a rich person’s understanding of poverty. It’s not exactly the romantic walk in the park she seems to think it is.

Alas, she’s not like her level-headed, practical sister, Elizabeth, who is perfect. She has learned every rule and is always kind. When their mother reveals that the death of their father has left the family in dire straits financially, Elizabeth will undoubtedly do everything to please her mother, including marrying for wealth over love. No one knows, though, that saving her family means ruining her own life. Since she was a child, she’s been in love with the family’s coachman, Will Keller, and he insists that she flee west with him. But a good person like Elizabeth can’t just abandon her family. Little does she know, she has to contend with her maid, and former childhood friend, Lina Broud, who is also deeply in love with Will.

Enter Henry Schoonmaker—the most eligible bachelor and the unapologetic bad boy of elite New York. Women fall all over themselves for him, and he basks in the adoration. That is, until, his permanently angry father decides to run for office and forces Henry to become propose to Elizabeth Holland—society’s darling. He’s forced to end his affair with Penelope Hayes, Elizabeth’s best frenemy, who is dead set on having Henry for herself. Chaos ensues.

To be honest, Elizabeth is the only character I rooted for in this book. You might think, “Of course, she’s the nice girl. That’s boring,” but I legitimately felt bad for her. The situation she’s in is unfathomable. Then again, all the other characters are terrible people, so she doesn’t have a whole lot of competition. Though there are moments where the reader can sympathize with them, one cannot forget their true natures: conniving, self-serving, and, in Penelope’s case, cruel.

Then I thought, that’s exactly what makes them so appealing. Like Gossip Girl, which I hate-watched.

We dislike these characters for their snobbery and their condescension and the overall wastefulness of their lifestyles. But we also love it for those very reasons. Watching the rich flounder and fall from grace is frighteningly satisfying…

But on a less “eat the rich” note, it’s also humanizing. Usually, we see people in positions of extreme privilege and forget that they are often forced to live a certain way, trading happiness for a life of comfort. Maybe not so much anymore, but definitely so at the turn of the century.

Godbersen ultimately does a fantastic job of developing the ambiance of late 1800’s New York. She integrates lush historical details seamlessly into the landscape of her characters’ lives, and it was nearly impossible not to imagine it becoming a film or television show similar to the 2012 Great Gatsby remake where everything on set is larger than life and constantly moving. Someone pass the message along.

All that being said, it’s a great poolside read for the upcoming summer months. You could finish it in one sitting if you’re ambitious enough, but the chapters really fly by.

Rest assured, I will continue to hate-read the rest of this series.

On “A Court of Thorns and Roses” by Sarah J. Maas

acotar
courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on Paperbackparis.com:

I’ve officially entered the cult fandom that surrounds Sarah J. MaasA Court of Thorns and Roses series. Somehow I missed the hype about her books until this year when the series’ second installment, A Court of Mist and Fury won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fantasy. When I started reading ACOTAR, I didn’t even bother to read the book jacket, so I had no idea it was meant to be a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. I kept thinking, “Hmm…this story seems vaguely familiar,” and, sure enough, that is what Maas intended.

That, perhaps, is one of the only elements of the novel that I had an issue with. Labeling ACOTAR as a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale is a stretch. To say that it was freely adapted is a bit of an understatement, guv’nah! (Kudos if you get the Easy A reference). It was, nevertheless, a gorgeously written contribution to fairy tale literature.

Feyre (Fay-ruh) lives in a destitute village on the south side of a wall that divides her country into two sections: the faerie inhabited Prythian, and the small mortal section in the country’s southernmost region. After a brutal war, hundreds of years earlier, humans and faeries hate each other with a contempt that has been bubbling under the surface for years.

After Feyre’s mother’s death and the loss of her father’s fortune, the family must scrape by however it can. For years, though, Feyre has shouldered the brunt of the effort. She is the only one who hunts and cooks and trades for what her father and two sisters need. Feyre made a promise to her mother before she died, vowing to take care of them until the end. And in Feyre’s world, a promise is kept until death.

In one moment, Feyre changes everything when she kills a wolf in the woods—a faerie in his transfigured state. She is taken from her home by a beast who tells her she must live in Prythian or submit to execution. When she reaches Prythian, Feyre finds herself wrapped up in the world of two High Fae named Tamlin and Lucien; it is their friend that she murdered. As much as she tries to resist getting used to their world, the magic—and Tamlin’s allure—keep her ensnared.

Feyre soon learns, though, that the magic surrounding Tamlin’s court is constantly under threat of dangerous faeries that only he can kill. But soon enough, even his power won’t be able to keep away whatever darkness is plaguing Prythian. Something—or someone—is trying to force Tamlin’s upper hand. Trying, perhaps, to harness all of Prythian’s magic.

After five Throne of Glass novels, Maas is a master of world-building. Clearly she has a penchant for fairy tale retellings, but it is her inclusion of ancient fairy lore that captivates the reader in ACOTAR. Pucas and bogges lurk in the shadows surrounding Tamlin’s court, along with other creatures whose stories have been passed down through folklore for ages. Maas weaves these creatures’ stories seamlessly into the story’s plot line and develops a sinister backstory in which humans were once slaves to faeries. Humans, in turn, hate faeries for their power and ruthlessness.

Maas is also a master of character development and deft plotting. It was nearly impossible to put the book down, and never possible in the middle of a chapter. She devotes the perfect amount of time to developing each piece of the story, EXCEPT when it came to explaining the real reason for Prythian’s “blight.” When Alis—Feyre’s maid during her stay at Tamlin’s Spring Court—reveals all that happened in the past, I felt like I had to read the page at least five times to catch all the details. The reader goes from knowing bits and pieces about the whole damn thing in, like, five seconds. It was a little too much to process all at once.

In terms of character development and interaction, Feyre had me hook, line, and sinker in the first chapter. I thought she was the most bad ass chick, especially since her family was such a ball and chain. These feelings started to flicker about halfway through the book, however. I started to get annoyed at her endless thoughts about escaping the Spring Court and consistently not believing that Tamlin had her family taken care of. It’s understandable to a point, but my sympathy started fading quickly.

On top of that—she made some STUPID decisions. Like, say, the night of the spring solstice when both Tamlin and Lucien tell her repeatedly to STAY IN HER ROOM. But no. No one can tell Feyre what to do, which nearly gets her in a heap of trouble. Which leads me to the…shall we say…steaminess of Tamlin and Feyre’s affair.

I did not expect things to be so hot and heavy. Usually, YA books suggest things—use innuendo—then cut out before the actual sex acts. Maas sure didn’t beat around the bush. (Mind out of the gutter!) Feyre and Tamlin—one they realize they do, in fact, harbor a burning desire for each other—go at it. Besides the fact that it was unexpected, I approved of the fact that Maas doesn’t make a conundrum out of it. Feyre wants to be with Tamlin. She initiates what happens between them, as she did with her childhood lover across the wall. I like the idea that Feyre can want something and have it without going through a moral dilemma about it as many young people in novels do.

That being said, I’d go for Lucien over Tamlin any day of the week. So much sass.

As the novel comes to a close, several threads are left open for the next installment. Several messed up threads, if I’m going to be honest. Maas’ ending leaves a lot to be desired because it really just fades out the way things do before shit hits the fan. I’m mentally preparing myself now for the second book, and I can’t even fathom what the third book will bring us upon its release. Spare us from pain, Sarah J. Maas. Spare us.