On “The Royal We” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

22875451This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Like me, I’m sure every asocial hermit with more than a touch of Anglophilia loves nothing more than to sit around on a lazy Saturday morning drinking tea and reading Kate Middleton fan fiction…No? That’s just me? Well, if you do share my proclivities, or just enjoy a breezy beach read, look no further than The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. This dynamic duo has produced the dishiest, compulsively readable romantic novel in recent memory.

The Royal We has all the right ingredients to make a great love story that blissfully excludes the heavy handedness of most romcom-esque novels; there’s usually quite a lot of formula and very little depth, but Cocks and Morgan have conjured that most coveted mix of romance, comedy, and blunder to produce summer reading gold.

The story unfolds on the morning of Rebecca “Bex” Porter’s wedding day as looks back on her relationship with Prince Nicholas of Wales. Sectioned off into the significant years of their relationship, Bex starts at the beginning—her year abroad at Oxford where Nick is the first person to greet her, at which time she makes a comment about the royal family having syphilis. (An amazing moment. I laughed like an idiot.)

Of course, she has no idea who he is at that moment, but they soon begin spending more and more and more time together. They bond over trash TV and American junk food and drink their way through all the pubs in Oxford. But he’s a prince. Bex knows it can’t be more than a flirtation. Plus, she’s already hooked up with their mutual friend, and one of Nick’s closest allies, Clive.

Things are tricky, and Nick is already under immense pressure from his domineering father, Prince Richard. He must be present at elite gatherings, emitting just the right amount of charm and wit without seeming too glib. Bex can see Nick has mastered his public façade. But what’s beneath it?

After a whirlwind series of heated moments, the pair decides to become a couple, but only their closest friends know. Keeping their relationship a secret from the public turns out to be difficult, but not as difficult as it becomes when Nick reveals their romance to the royal family, and the pair becomes an “unofficial” item to the press. Bex must be her best at all times, and worse, her twin sister Lacey still continues to make a spectacle out of herself in public for the sake of attention.

As life becomes more difficult for the two at the hands of the press and Nick’s growing list of duties, they must make a decision about the future. Will they really get married, or it back to Iowa for Bex?

Cocks and Morgan build the narrative beautifully. It’s seductive, charming, hilarious at times, and impeccably well written. Even if people think the novel is a cheap rip off of the Will and Kate courtship, it’s still extremely well done. More than that, readers are forced to think about just how much they consume the type of tabloid press that exposes the lives of these individuals for the whole world to see.

On one hand, we often say these high-profile people get what’s coming to them, but Nick was born into his life, and Bex…well…Bex has to decide if she can go along for the ride for the rest of her life—the future Queen of England. Every lighthearted moment the couple shares comes at the cost of intense of public scrutiny when they leave the confines of their sanctuaries. It also doesn’t help that Lacey is running wild and some members of the couple’s friend group seem to be turning against them.

It’s all a matter of empathizing with the people whose lives we consume as entertainment, and the authors explore these fabricated (but very familiar) lives with care, dignity, and the humor that comes along with everyday life.

There were moments in the story where I could see the obvious parallels between the novel and the real British royal family, but it’s always done with a hint of good-natured ribbing. And, more than that, those hints never mask the obvious talent Cocks and Morgan have when it comes to developing plot structure and imbuing each character with carefully crafted personalities that never cease to grow along with the main characters.

I cannot recommend The Royal We highly enough to readers looking for a fun, fast read for the summer. Of course, you have to read it to get ready for the upcoming film adaptation—just pop on some sunglasses and park yourself in a beach chair. And don’t forget the sunscreen! Once you’ve started Cocks and Morgan’s brilliant novel, you won’t want to stop until you’ve turned the last page.

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 “Suite Scarlett” by Maureen Johnson

scarlett
courtesy of goodreads.com

Like I said earlier: the craze continues. This time, with a novel that is more similar in tone to The Bermudez Triangle, though not quite as edgy. I imagine this would have been the perfect summer break book for me when I was younger. It has all the right ingredients:

  1. Teenage siblings brought up in an unusual environment (i.e. a hotel in New York City).
  2. An off beat hotel guest who shakes things up.
  3. A complicated love interest.
  4. Money problems.
  5. The streets of NYC in the summer.

All good things. Johnson kept Suite Scarlett light and fun–perfect for a teenager on his or her summer vacation. While I thought the novel got off to a slow start, the author quickly showed just how talented she is at designing characters and developing their interpersonal relationships, especially the dynamic between the Martin siblings.

And–while almost all YA novels contain a love interest at their core–Scarlett’s relationship (or lack of one) with Eric introduces a complexity that many lack. Oftentimes, boy and girl fall in love and run along happily ever after, but Johnson consciously introduces a three year age gap that changes everything for them.

Personally, I was so done with Eric after his and Scarlett’s rendezvous on the Empire State Building. But, first love is a bitch to be reckoned with. The complications that arise knowing that Eric will go to NYU and almost inevitably change makes their doomed romance relatable to many a young person out there. I would like to have read this book when I was 14/15 and half in love with a senior boy who I wouldn’t stop bugging. Unfortunately, I had no concept of “cool.” Yes, I was an embarrassment to myself.

Furthermore, I love resourceful teenagers in a sort of masochistic way. I sure as hell wasn’t witty, sharp, cunning, or helpful when I was Scarlett’s age. I just existed and did school related things sometimes and read a ton of books. It was a fun day when my mom realized that reading a lot does not translate into academic intelligence. Good times.

Though Suite Scarlett isn’t on the same par as Johnson’s Shades of London series, it is definitely worth a read for young people around 14 or 15. It’s fun, relatable, and contains all of the author’s trademark humor.

On “The Name of the Star” by Maureen Johnson

13595639
Courtesy of goodreads.com

My Maureen Johnson kick is still in full swing. I started with The Bermudez Triangle, which I enjoyed, but not as much as the first installment of her Shades of London series, The Name of the Star. I was hooked from page one. The Shades series comes a little later in Johnson’s YA career, so her writing is not just functional, but gripping as well.

It’s clear from the novels opening pages that Johnson has a firm grasp the layout of London and the Ripper murders. In my junior year of college, I spent five weeks in Bloomsbury, which isn’t that far from the site of the murders. A friend of mine and I went on a “Jack the Ripper/Sherlock Holmes” double-decker bus tour, so my interest in the Ripper has only grown since then.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve lost in the wormhole I call the Internet looking at autopsy photographs, the Mary Jane Kelly crime scene, and the infamous “From Hell” letter.

Time well spent, if you ask me.

Because of my keen interest (I wouldn’t call it an obsession…yet), I thoroughly enjoy novels that contain Ripper lore or anything similar. I especially loved Johnson’s take on the Ripper crimes, which, I’ll admit, have been done to death (pun intended).

Though I did take issue with some of the novel’s pacing and character introductions, I loved the way Johnson developed Rory’s family history and the way she used her choking experience as a plot development. I, for one, did not see that coming. In having her protagonist suffer the most embarrassing possible near death experience, Johnson maintains her sarcastic sense of humor, which runs full force in The Bermudez Triangle. But it never becomes overwhelming or ill-placed in the face of some pretty heavy stuff.

Furthermore, she does an amazing job of describing Wexford. Boarding school books (i.e. Harry Potter) have always been my favorites because good authors always have a way of describing the grounds of their imaginary schools in such a way that it feels as if the reader is wandering the halls along with the characters. The “boarding school motif” also appeals to readers, I think, because it describes something from another world. There’s something so mysterious and ancient about living in old buildings in close proximity with people striving towards the same goal as you.

Oftentimes I find that friendships in YA novels fall short of depicting reality, but Rory’s friendships with Jazza, Boo, Callum, and (especially) Stephen are perfectly nuanced and believable, which is more than I can say for novels whose purpose is not to explore those friendships.

*Side note* Jerome can just shove off, though. His interest in the Ripper bordered on problematic, and I would bet all my money that he’d drop Rory like a hot potato if she ever told him the truth about herself. I’m calling it now: she ends up with Stephen. (She better, Maureen Johnson!)

Rory’s ability to see ghosts brings her closer to those who have the same ability, in all their trauma and isolation. No one but them can understand the isolation that comes along with having an ability that makes most people think you’re crazy. It’s especially difficult when, in this novel, they see how the sight can drive someone to madness.

Honestly, I can’t wait to read the other books in this series. I have a strong feeling I’ll devour them.

On “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

the hate u give
courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Tupac Shakur famously had a tattoo across his abdomen that read “THUG LIFE.” It’s easy to dismiss as something that was just part of his image (I always did), but it was much more than that.

Moments before Starr Carter’s closest childhood friend, Khalil, is gunned down by a cop, he explains what “THUG LIFE” stands for—a phrase that captures the essence of Angie Thomass gorgeous, heartbreaking book, the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, systemic racism, and the endless lies we tell ourselves about a post-racial America: “The Hate U Give Little Children Fucks Everybody.”

Like a pressure cooker. When you funnel prejudice and drugs into poor communities, gangs spring up as a form of protection and the unrelenting carceral state we live in spins on and on as a consequence. It’s a tale as old as time, and we see what we want to see. We pass judgment on what goes on in “the ghetto” and assume that the cops are just doing what they must to maintain order. It’s a vicious cycle that builds and builds, where no one on the outside understands the conscious decisions our country has made since its inception: condemning certain parts of the country. When no one listens to the people in those places, they cling to the only thing they have—rage.

There is a moment in the middle of The Hate U Give when Starr must decide whether or not she’s going to testify in front of a grand jury. She realizes that this is something bigger than her or Khalil. “This is about Us,” she says, “with a capital U; everybody who looks like us, and is experiencing this pain with us despite not knowing me or Khalil. My silence isn’t helping us.”

But the silence was all she could rely on up until that point. Starr, Khalil, and their friend Natasha had been “tighter than Voldemort’s nose” when they were kids. Then Natasha got killed in a drive-by shooting when they were 10. From then on, Starr has had to live a double life. After the shooting, her parents sent her and her two brothers—Seven and Sekani—to a predominantly white prep school 45 minutes away from their home.

At school, she has to make sure she’s not too loud or too argumentative; she has to let things slide for the sake of not coming across as the “angry black girl.” The double life is exhausting. No one at school really seems to understand.

Right before Khalil’s death, Starr provides an aside for readers, telling them that black parents have two important conversations with their children when they reach a certain age. The first, of course, is the birds and the bees. The second is how to deal with cops. Questioning the cop who pulled them over and opening the car door to check on Starr was enough to get Khalil killed. Surprise, surprise.

When the police interview Starr for the first time about what happened, they push her to give details about Khalil being in a gang and selling drugs. Because if he did, his murder would be okay in the public’s eye. As if he had it coming. As if he never had a life. As if his murder was the alpha and omega of his existence.

Everyone in the news and on social media goes back and forth about whose at fault when unarmed black men get killed by cops. Some people will say, once again, that cops have to do what’s necessary. Others will throw out statistics that say white men are shot and killed more frequently than black men and women. Even if that’s true, it is fundamentally true that people of color get pulled over/detained/stopped and frisked at an alarmingly higher rate than everyone else. That’s the “hate” Thomas is talking about.

Starr’s Uncle Carlos makes a simple observation while the family is waiting for the grand jury to release their verdict, saying that a cop who shoots someone for opening his or her car door should not be a cop. And that’s the end of it. The reader finds out later that it was Khalil’s hairbrush that made the cop believe it was a gun.

Obviously, this novel will resonate with people who already sympathize with and understand the plight of police brutality and systemic racism, but for those who dismiss those concepts (or actively rage about them), this book will teach you a little something.

Thomas brilliantly takes every perspective into account, from Uncle Carlos—the police detective, to Starr’s formerly incarcerated father, to Starr’s white classmates. Each of the novel’s characters contributes to a multi-faceted story that shows the underlying context behind so many deaths at the hands of police. It challenges readers to look beyond themselves into spaces that are right in front of us but are the spaces we refuse to see.

Thomas’ writing is flawless, with a perfectly rendered dialect that makes the reader feel as though they are bearing witness to conversations in the flesh. Her story contains the deepest wells of love, respect, and justice for those who have died like Khalil and those who are left behind to sift through the rubble after they’re gone.

There is a moment before Starr’s grand jury testimony when she almost backs out because of Garden Heights’ most powerful gang leader—King—tells the Carter family that he will retaliate if Starr reveals anything about his drug dealings. Starr’s father, Maverick, makes her recite the first point in the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program:

“We Want Freedom. We Want the Power To Determine The Destiny Of Our Black Community.” 

Repeat.

Repeat.

Repeat.

On “The Bermudez Triangle” by Maureen Johnson

bermudez-triangle
Image courtesy of photobucket.com

So I finally got around to making a dent in the YA books I told you about. Several Maureen Johnson books are tucked in there, and I’ve really been looking forward to reading them. I got turned onto her books by a colleague at my college newspaper who interviewed her for an article; fun fact: she’s an alumna of the University of Delaware. (Go Hens!)

I wanted to start near the beginning of her canon, which is quite a lot bigger than I thought it was; I pulled as many as I could from my local library, and decided to begin with The Bermudez Triangle, which has since been renamed On the Count of Three.

The story follows three friends who have been inseparable since they were children. During the summer before their senior year, Nina attends a leadership camp at Stanford where she falls in love with an eco-warrior named Steve who seems perfect in every way. Meanwhile, her best friends, Avery, the witty, musically talented firebrand of the group, and Mel, the shy one, fall in love. When Nina returns and discovers the newly formed romance, it seems that the Bermudez triangle might not last through senior year.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. Johnson is the type of writer who makes the story seem effortless, I think, in part, because of her humor. She makes her characters’ personalities and situations genuinely relatable, and I found myself rooting for and disapproving of each character in cycles as the novel progressed.

According to Johnson’s website (see link above), this book has been challenged in Oklahoma and Florida for its positive portrayal of a homosexual relationship. All the more reason to read it, no? It was published in 2004, a few years before gay marriage was legalized and reemerged as a popular topic of discussion in popular culture.

Since Johnson’s book predates this massive discussion and diffusion into mainstream culture, I was impressed with the way she developed Mel and Avery’s relationship. It’s an interesting, if cursory, study of how deep friendship between two people of the same sex can turn into romance. I loved that the sexuality of both characters was not cut and dry; Mel is a lesbian, and Avery simply falls in love with her friend.

I also appreciated the other romantic dynamics that developed over the course of the novel. The thing with Nina and Steve was spot on, but I HATED that she was even considering the idea of getting back with him at the end. If you readers haven’t seen/read He’s Just Not That Into You

, do it ASAP. She needed to kick him to the curb because at the age of 17/18, sorry isn’t good enough. Find someone better. Or don’t. Just don’t go back to the hippie-boy who couldn’t make time to call or write and ended up cheating on you.

You could say I have some personal experience on that front. Don’t we all?

ANYWAY, I’ll get off my soap box now.

I would recommend this for people interested in reading more LGBTQ fiction because, as I said, I think it does a great job of exploring fluid sexuality and coming out to one’s family. In all other aspects of the YA arena, The Bermudez Triangle didn’t break the mold. But it’s enjoyable. I knocked it out in a couple days.

Happy reading!