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

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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 “Tell Me Three Things” by Julie Buxbaum

three things
courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

All I can say is, “Where was this book when I was a teenager?” Julie Buxbaum‘s fantastic novel Tell Me Three Things reminds readers of the painful isolation that comes along with being a teenager who’s a little bit different. Of course, most teenagers have that feeling, but I have to say, reading Jessie’s story was like reading torn out pages from my own high school journal.

Jessie Holmes—the novel’s protagonist—has just been forcefully relocated to Los Angeles. Her father married a woman he met in an online support group for grieving widows and widowers, so Jessie schlepped across the country to live with her new family in a nouveau riche McMansion, trading in deep dish pizza and 7-Eleven Slurpees for kale juice and quinoa.

Needless to say, things are going badly at her new high school, Wood Valley. Everyone wears designer clothing and has an obscene amount of coffee spending money. Basically, it has more filthy rich kids than you can shake a stick at, and Jessie is most definitely not one of them.

But what seems like a dire situation makes a 180-degree turn when an anonymous person from Wood Valley, calling himself Somebody Nobody (or, “SN”) e-mails Jessie out of the blue. He tells her all about the school’s shallowness and the lack of genuine human connection. Pretty soon, Jessie and SN are talking constantly. The only thing is, he won’t reveal his true identity.

Honestly, I didn’t know if I would be able to invest myself in this story after reading the book jacket. Anonymous e-mails? Hmmm… But, honey, this story pulled me in immediately! There’s this sense of gravity in YA fiction that I find deeply alluring. These novels always weave the most significant “firsts” that teenagers go through into their story lines, often reflecting—or attempting to reflect—the bursts of emotion that young people go through.

Tell Me Three Things could have easily fallen into that weird gray area where characters say things that seem generally familiar but fail to stick with the reader in any lasting way, but Buxbaum’s expert character development and natural prose sinks into the reader’s skin. I cannot tell you how many times over the course of this novel I remembered how I did or said something exactly the way Jessie would have—though she is, no doubt, smarter and wittier than I ever was.

But, I’m not even kidding, I’ve yet to come across a character who openly admits she never says the right thing when it matters. Only after replaying the conversation over and over in her head does she come up with the right things to say. Seriously, that’s the entire story of my life in a nutshell.

Tell Me Three Things also struck some deep nerves in its discussion of grief and bullying. Jessie’s mother died from cancer, and it’s sometimes difficult for Jessie to remember things about her. She does know that her mother loved Gertrude Stein, and old books, and making pancakes in the shape of Jessie’s initials. She also knows that her mother will never be around to guide her, to see her through her most difficult moments. And even though they were thick as thieves before her mother died, it seems possible that their relationship would have changed irrevocably once she got older. And even though her father says her mother would have been proud of her, Jessie can’t ever know that for sure.

As Jessie makes her way through the situations she finds herself in—with SN, Ethan, Scarlett, her dad—she must maintain the fabric of who she is without falling into the unrelenting isolation that weighs on her as things become more and more complicated. Jessie is stronger than she gives herself credit for, and, in the end, she’s always known exactly who she is.

On “Shatter Me” by Tahereh Mafi

Shatter-me-new-eye-co1A459Ohhhh boy….This book…

I’m going to keep my criticism of Shatter Me as succinct as possible because my grievances are many. I felt assured by various outlets–book reviewers, a nice Buzzfeed list, and several goodreads ratings–that Tahereh Mafi’s debut novel would be worth by time.

I barely got through it.

I held onto my optimism for the first few chapters, which weren’t horrible, but not nearly as good as I had been led to believe they would be. The crossing out lines convention, for example, was more irksome than creative. Halfway through the book, it became such a nuisance; Mafi had already established the character’s self-loathing and guilt, but she had to keep doing it for the sake of fluidity.

I wouldn’t have minded the crossing out had the writing been marginally better, but it was, in my opinion, abysmal. This seems cruel, but if I had the book next to me, I would pull some quotes. As a matter of fact–the next time you’re in the YA section of a book store, pull this book off the shelf and read a few pages at random. You’ll see my point.

It’s easy for the reader to see Mafi’s potential in her prose, but I can’t help but wonder if publishing companies sometimes overindulge young writers just because they seem precocious…There are several very young writers like Veronica Roth and Sarah J. Maas who are fabulous, but Shatter Me was just a little too half-baked.

The novel’s world building wasn’t well developed enough to redeem the metaphor laden text, nor were the characters particularly interesting. (On a side note, I feel like the concept of a young protagonist who cannot be touched for the threat of inflicting pain and/or death was rendered much more fully in Roth’s Carve the Mark.) The dialogue between them was certainly intriguing at times–especially between Juliette and Warner–but it was a far cry from where it needed to be to sustain the character development Mafi pushed throughout the novel.

Back to the writing itself, though…The metaphors and similes are so rampant, it was nearly impossible for Juliette to make it through a thought without saying something was like something else, or using over-the-top emotive expressions that ruined any kind of connection I could have had to her.

I’m not sure if the series will get better, but I might try the second novel just to see if it gets better at all. Some of the characters Mafi introduced at the end of the novel–those involved with Omega Point–seem genuinely interesting. So…we’ll see. I don’t think the series is redeemable though.

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On “All the Bright Places” by Jennifer Niven

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Courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

This review contains spoilers from the book

Strap on your seatbelts, kids. This book is going to be a rough fucking ride. Imagine The Fault in Our Stars, and replace cancer with mental illness. Yes. It’s the definition of an emotional roller coaster. (Ironically enough, this book features Violet and Finch riding two homemade roller coasters. Do with that what you will.)

Jennifer Niven builds her novel on the typical boy-meets-girl-in-some-strange-circumstance-and-then-bond-even though-they-have-nothing-in-common trope we see in most all young adult novels these days. But it quickly diverges into something else. Each chapter alternates between Violet’s and Finch’s perspectives. Violet is dealing with grief and guilt after surviving a car crash that killed her older sister and is counting down the days until graduation. Finch has just woken up from a “sleep” that has kept him homebound for nearly a month; he’s finally awake, and he’ll do anything he can to stay that way.

All the Bright Places begins with both Violet and Finch standing at the top of their school’s bell tower, trying to feel more alive. From that moment on, they have an unbreakable connection. Finch pushes Violet to experience everything all at once, taking her on adventure after adventure. Violet has to learn to push boundaries again even though the simple act of getting into a car makes her freak out.

Soon enough, though, it becomes apparent that Finch’s idiosyncratic behavior is more than just a facet of his buoyant personality, but he refuses to label himself with an illness, and his parents are willfully ignorant of his problems or, in his father’s case, abusive. Finch does everything he can to mend himself by struggling to stay awake and caring for Violet. But it isn’t enough.

**Spoiler alert** Finch kills himself. The instant when Violet realizes he’s dead is one of the most devastating moments in YA fiction that I can remember. I knew his illness was getting the best of him at that point in the novel, but I honestly believed he would seek medical attention for the sake of his personal goals, his family, and of course, Violet. But, once again, he refused to acknowledge he could be “bi-polar,” believing it would be the end of him.

Niven expertly characterizes Finch within the confines of his illness. His chapters throughout the novel are consistently well-crafted, and they subtly highlight the drive of Finch’s mania and the frightening depth of his depression should he fall into it again. There are moments in the beginning, however, where the reader might find his exuberance both tiring and trite, but his musings become more palatable as the pages wear on.

Unfortunately, Finch’s chapters are so well-done that Violet’s chapters can sometimes pale in comparison. In retrospect, I realize that this might have been a tool Niven used purposefully to contrast Finch’s excess with Violet’s contained state of grief. Even if that was her intention, I found myself more invested in Finch’s story because Niven draws attention to this illness of his that no one can see. Finch even posits the idea that people don’t get flowers when they’re suffering from something that others can’t see. And if people can’t see it, it must not exist, right?

Although I wanted Finch to come to the realization that he needed medical attention, I knew that realization would be a fairy tale ending to a story that was doomed from the beginning.

All the Bright Places is an important story for anyone affected by mental illness or suicide, and it’s an important reminder for everyone involved that it’s not always your fault if someone decides to end his or her life. Sometimes even caring for someone with suicidal tendencies isn’t enough to save them, which is a lesson Violet is forced to learn when Finch is gone.

On “The Name of the Star” by Maureen Johnson

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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 “Caraval” by Stephanie Garber

caraval
courtesy of goodreads.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Oh boy. Where do I begin? From everything I read about Stephanie Garber‘s highly-acclaimed debut novel, Caraval, I expected it to be perfectly crafted with world-building and character development. And in the first few chapters of the book, I thought it would. But as the novel progressed, things went went south. Quickly.

In the novel, Scarlett and Donatella “Tella” Dragna live on the Isle of Trisda with their physically and emotionally abusive father, Governor Dragna. For years, Scarlett has been writing letters to the illusive Master Legend who runs an infamous game called Caraval. Her grandmother’s stories of magic, adventure, and romance captivated her so completely that she would do almost anything to play the game. That is until the year of her engagement to a duke she’s never met—her only way to get herself and her sister away from her father’s abuse.

Much to her surprise, Legend sends her three tickets to the game just two weeks before her wedding. She knows she can’t go if the wedding is to take place without incident. But her sister, Tella, has other plans. With the help of an attractive, braggadocious sailor named Julian, Tella successively subdues Scarlett and brings her to Legend’s personal island where she is thrust into the game, and to her surprise, finding Tella is the goal. She has five nights to find her and win the coveted wish Legend promises the winner.

To be fair, much of Garber’s writing suits the subject matter to a tee, complete with lush descriptions and heady imagery. She tactfully gives the novel’s protagonist, Scarlett, synesthetic abilities; every emotion she feels manifests itself in vivid color. This struck me as an inventive, compelling way for Garber to draw the reader into the magic, fear, and passion of Scarlett’s world.

Unfortunately, such a creative literary convention falls far short of salvaging the rest of the novel. Its only redeeming parts form bookends to a muddled story line marred by a shallow romance that must have been ripped from a cheap Harlequin romance. While the novel’s twists and turns are mildly entertaining at the start, Garber takes the surprises a little too far; they feel like punches, one after another, that pass along without any real analysis or second thought. Perhaps that was always the intention.

The world of Caraval is meant to be unpredictable and maddening with an unhinged master puppeteer pulling his players here and there in the name of adventure. But Garber does this through a protagonist who is far too uncertain and repetitive in her thoughts and insecurities. Oh, you can’t sleep in the same bed as a man who isn’t your fiance? Your dad is going to freak out when he finds out what’s happening? We know. You’ve only said it about 500 times now. Kthanksbye.

Instead of investing my empathy, I became dismissive of it all about half way through the book. There was quite a lot of eye-rolling if I’m going to be completely honest with you. The forbidden nature of the growing romantic tension between Scarlett and Julian is meant to be the glue holding the plot together; it’s meant to be passionate, slightly lustful, and mutually adoring.

But, it’s mostly just a series of tawdry moments strung together, most of them full of sighs, gasps, hands gripping lower backs and hips, meaningful stares, etc. I got to the point that if I ever saw another sentence describing Julian’s tanned muscles, I was going to throw the book across the room. Since their romance is such an integral part of the story, it needed to be so much more than what it appeared to be on paper.

Nevertheless, there is a moment in the novel’s final pages where it seems the two characters have a real moment of mutual development as Garber builds up to a cliffhanger for the next installment of the series. I can only hope that the second book will do the interesting subject matter more justice than the first novel did.