On “Alex, Approximately” by Jenn Bennett

514G-2avVpL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jenn Bennett‘s latest novel Alex, Approximately is everything a summer read should be. There’s romance, California sunshine, foggy mornings, surfers, and classic films. What more could you ask for?

Bennett weaves her tale of love, personal growth, and overcoming the lasting effects of trauma with the sights and sounds of coastal California. The imagery of massive redwood trees and boardwalk activity imbues Bennett’s story with a sharp vividness that blooms in the reader’s mind. Through those details, the complex relationship between Bailey Rydell and Porter Roth takes shape.

The novel begins with Bailey’s decision to move across the country because her mother’s marriage to “Nate LLC” is more of a sparring match than a sacrament. After a trauma in her youth involving one of her mother’s unhinged clients, Bailey becomes an evader, branding herself “The Artful Dodger.” She hates confrontation and being put under the spotlight, so when things get heavy, she’s out of there faster than you can bat an eye. Bailey has her evasion tactics down to a science, and she’s prepared to put them to good use when she gets to Coronado Cove.

For several months, Bailey has been corresponding with a fellow classic film lover on an online forum who goes by “Alex.” It isn’t just their love of old movies that make them compatible, though. They get each other in ways others don’t. (What would a YA novel be without a “you-get-me-like-no one-else gets-me trope?”) When Alex invites Bailey—known only as “Mink” online—to a film festival in his hometown of Coronado Cove, Bailey decides not to tell him that she’ll be moving there. To her, it seems like the best way to avoid a sticky situation is to find Alex first and determine whether or not revealing herself would be a good idea.

All she has to go on are a handful of details that Alex has dropped into their conversations: he works in his family’s store on the boardwalk, the store is near a churro cart, and there’s a stray cat hanging out in front. Not much to go on, but Bailey is determined.

Unfortunately, her sleuthing has to take a back burner to her new summer job in “the Hotbox,” a ticket booth in Coronado Cove’s most popular attraction, where Porter Roth becomes her archnemesis.

Porter is incredibly good-looking and charming, but is also, in Bailey’s terms, “a goddamn dickbag.” When provoked, young Bailey does not mince words.

But that’s not really like her. Bailey never gets provoked; she never lets anyone get under her skin that way. Something about Porter makes her blood boil…and elicits some other unholy feelings. She’s still determined to find Alex, but, somehow, Porter keeps getting in the way.

Soon enough, Alex and Mink are talking to each other less and less. Bailey assumes he’s found a girlfriend, which leaves her in a confusing entanglement with Porter. Being with him forces her to break out of the defense mechanisms she’s developed. “The Artful Dodger” goes on an indefinite hiatus as Bailey finds herself opening up to new friends.

Bennett does an exceptional job of parsing out the nuance of Bailey’s relationship with Porter. As things progress, she has to come to terms with change and learn how to trust Porter with the most difficult parts of her past.

I was also interested to find that Bennett promoted a clear, sex-positive message throughout the book, which was uncommon in what I read as a teenager, but is, perhaps, important for young people to read. People often feel quite a lot of shame when it comes to the physical aspect of relationships, but Bennett presents sex as a natural, healthy thing.

Some of the character development for supporting characters fell short of expectation. For instance, Bailey’s mom (What the heck is up with that situation? What parent, no matter what they’ve gone through, allows their kid move across the country and then doesn’t speak to them once? Not a plausible part of the narrative, in my opinion) and Davey (I felt genuinely horrible for this kid. Also, Porter was a legit asshole for fucking with his bum leg. Like his life isn’t already ruined. Just saying.)

But Bailey and Porter grow a lot over the course of the novel, and it’s refreshing to see the roughest parts of that process. The love-hate relationship that unfolds in the beginning of their relationship becomes “compatible arguing” when the two realize they respect each other.

It’s a well-fashioned story, with enough quirk to make it exceedingly charming. There were, however, a few irksome moments…

*This portion of the review contains spoilers*

It’s pretty obvious from the beginning that Porter and Bailey are Alex and Mink. (There are a lot of Tell Me Three Things/You’ve Got Mail vibes going on.) Somehow, though, the initial reveal is not a happy moment. Porter finds out when Bailey’s dad calls her Mink in front of him and he freaks out (irrationally, in my opinion) because he believes Bailey still has feelings for “Alex” and has been keeping this secret from him.

To an extent, it’s easy to understand why Porter would have trust issues; his best friend is a drug addict who steals from his current girlfriend and slept with his ex-girlfriend. Believing that Bailey has kept something from him after they’ve built a relationship on the mutual disclosure of painful memories is enough to seriously freak him out.

BUT…I didn’t get why Porter wouldn’t just tell Bailey about the whole thing once he realized there was nothing to be concerned about. Instead, he tries to make her figure it out, which causes Bailey to lose her shit. (Also, why wouldn’t her dad tell her??? So much confusion for nothing.)

As a plot device, the whole situation is definitely one way to move the narrative forward to its happy conclusion, but goddamn…Everyone just needs to calm the hell down. Hormones are raging and all the California heat has gone to their brains, which is extremely unhelpful for rational discussion. The way the ending played out was ultimately frustrating, but I guess there’s nothing like a healthy dose of dramatic irony to get the juices flowing.

In the end, Alex, Approximately is a quirky, fun read that mixes the light-hearted with the heavy in a way that produces a well-crafted take on the YA formula.

“Manhattans and Murder” : My Summer’s Guilty Pleasure

Image result for manhattans and murderAs I mentioned in my review of Gin and Daggers, I am a devoted Murder, She Wrote fan due to years of watching the show with my mother. Donald Bain’s light-hearted “cozy mysteries,” as I like to call them, are perfect for laid back summer nights when I need a reprieve from heavier texts I’m working through. Right now, that happens to be Heather Ann Thompson’s comprehensive examination of the Attica Prison uprising of 1971, Blood in the Water–an absolute must read for anyone interested in prison reform (or history in general). It’s exceptionally well done.

When I was feelings overwhelmed by the content of that book, I would switch gears and crack open Bain’s second novel in the Murder, She Wrote series, Manhattans and Murder. Like it’s predecessor, it is just as readable and just as chock full of Jessica Fletcher charm.

Though I preferred Jessica’s sleuthing around Old London Town, her time spent in New York City turned out to be just as fun. Bain is fantastic at describing her meals. I love that. Whenever Jessica eats fancy meals and retreats into her thoughts, I relax. It’s a strange phenomenon, but one I relish nonetheless.

While I do think Bain has firm grasp on Jessica’s overall mannerisms and demeanor, his characterization of her can seem a little bit off at times. Sometimes it’s in her speech, or the way she reacts to events that transpire in the novel…But I have no doubt those kinks will get ironed out at the series progresses.

Next up on the guilty pleasure tour is…drum roll please…Rum and Razors! Jessica is faced with yet another murder when her trip to the Caribbean goes awry. Dun dun dun.

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 “Marlena” by Julie Buntin

51n+GHTDlNL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buntin‘s debut novel, Marlena, examines the nuance and power of young female friendship, the lasting effects of guilt, and the rampant drug abuse present in rural areas of the United States. It’s quite a lot to tackle in less than 300 pages, but Buntin isn’t any other author; every line is crafted to a sharp point that digs deep into the aspects of adolescence that haunt us long into adulthood. I’m not sure that many authors would have been up to the task, but Buntin’s unsentimental prose and pitch-perfect characterization comprise an affecting novel that—as many great books do—encourages rereading.

It’s hard to overstate how influential adolescent friendships can be on an individual’s development, especially a young woman. Countless authors, from Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, to Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, have explored that nearly unbreakable bond between women who are drawn to each other for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. But it is that particular strength of adolescent attachment that Buntin navigates with astounding acuity.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Cat as a 15-year-old who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the tantalizing web Marlena weaves, and Cat as an adult, pondering how her brief time with Marlena has changed her life irrevocably. Young Cat has the observer’s intelligence of an avid reader. She looks at the world with a level of maturity beyond her age, and Marlena’s presence makes her even more aware of the dark lining that wraps around beautiful things—like Michigan, like Marlena.

But Cat’s perspicacity isn’t enough to right Marlena’s increasing dependence on prescription pills, and her eventual (inevitable) heroin use. Marlena’s ill-fated tale of addiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, functions as a microcosm in its depiction of a larger phenomenon. It seems now that nearly everyone knows someone who has made the leap from prescription drugs to heroin. It’s cheaper and makes for a faster high. Pharmaceutical companies—the world’s most powerful kingpins—make a killing (literally) peddling pills to people in the country’s poorest communities.

And yet, Marlena believes she is doing the right thing in avoiding meth—the substance that has sunk its claws into everyone around her. Her father and boyfriend cook it, and it caused her mother to leave. To Marlena, pills are what doctors prescribe to people anyway. No harm in that, right?

As an adult, Cat seizes the moments in hindsight when she could have done something to save Marlena, but she was too enraptured with her, too dependent on the feeling of being part of a whole. Their friendship is the propulsive force that moves her, sharpening her senses to take in a world that can only exist in their rural section of Michigan—a dead end town that somehow contains multitudes.

When Marlena’s little brother Sal calls Cat to tell her he’s in New York and wants to talk about everything that happened in the past, she is forced to take stock of just how much Marlena’s brief presence in her life has changed who she’s become—someone who often drinks to excess, who has a strained relationship with her father and brother, who feels an innate empathy for outsiders and addicts.

In some ways, the “Peter Pan” effect has taken hold of fragments of Cat’s memories of Marlena, which is generally the natural way of things; Cat grows older, Marlena will always be a teenager. Building that dynamic into a narrative successfully without making Marlena seem like a tragic hero is a difficult task, one that Buntin handles brilliantly.

Yes, Marlena possesses a disarming, feral beauty; consciously understated intelligence; and a beautiful singing voice. But Cat also remembers Marlena’s mercurial nature, her occasional condescension, her secretiveness, and her unwashed hair.

Buntin begins the novel with a scene that becomes even more poignant once the reader finishes the book. It’s Marlena speeding dangerously towards the lake in their town, not showing any signs of stopping. Cat is screaming, afraid. But Marlena keeps driving, foot pressed down on the pedal, deep in one of her drug-induced manias. And Cat hates her in that moment.

Even though those negative feelings never last, they become a dark lining on all their happiest moments—the moments Adult Cat looks on with regret for not having done something more for Marlena.

In the end, Buntin has strung together a novel that is equal parts a love story, a tragedy, and an ode to the harsh beauty and danger of Michigan. But Marlena is primarily about guilt; how to deal with it; where to lay blame; how to make peace with the past. I’m not sure the answers are clear-cut, but the questions themselves are enough to jolt the reader into awareness.

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

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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.