let’s review: the sky is everywhere

sky“But the guilt didn’t have much of a chance against the dawning realization that I was falling in love. I had stared out the window at the early-morning fog, wondering for a moment if she had sent [him] to me so I would know that in the same world where she could die, this could happen.”

Jandy Nelson is a gem—her sentences shine right off the page. The Sky is Everywhere tells the story of Lennie, caught up in first love and feeling guilty about it since her sister Bailey died. There’s Toby, Bailey’s boyfriend, who understands Lennie’s grief, and there’s Joe, the new kid, who takes Lennie out of it. From playing the clarinet to leaving poetry scribbled onto napkins, tree trunks, and candy wrappers, tucked in places where she can tell the story of two sisters and put it out into the world, Lennie struggles to find her voice and somehow balance the darkness of loss with the light of stumbling into her own love story. But revolving between the boys who are like the moon and the sun will be its own force, perhaps too powerful for Lennie’s freshly grieving heart.

Just as in I’ll Give You the Sun, Nelson’s characters in The Sky is Everywhere are real and full of feeling, with many memorable lines bursting forth from the story:

“When I’m with him, there is someone with me in my house of grief, someone who knows its architecture as I do.”

“And then he smiles, and in all the places around the globe where it’s night, day breaks.”

“What are we going to do with all this love?”

In fact, there are moments where all that feeling is almost too much, or a few moments that may at first seem over-the-top or far-fetched, and yet this is also what I love about the author’s particular way with words: polishing them just so until they absolutely glow. The Sky is Everywhere is a poignant and passionate look at loss, grief, and the kind of love that fills the whole sky.

let’s review: vanishing girls

vanishing[note: this review contains spoilers. To read spoiler-free, go here.]

Reading Lauren Oliver’s Vanishing Girls starts out with a “meh,” leads to a “hmmm” and ends with an “oh!”

Sisters Nick and Dara have danced between inseparable, jealous, and barely speaking—their layered relationship affected even more by a traumatic car accident that shatters their sisterhood into a hundred fragile pieces, leaving the “After” with a longing to somehow put the pieces back together and find each other again.

I have to say, the book jacket synopsis is somewhat misleading. It would only truly make sense if written by the character, not the publisher. So, we’re set up before the story even begins.

The first half of the book feels a bit lackluster, mostly in the way it’s written. But enough components related to the sisters and the disappearances (and the somewhat misleading synopsis) kept my curiosity. The second half of the book proves to be much stronger, even despite the story taking a slightly different trajectory.

To really appreciate the story as a whole, I had to go back through the beginning and the middle to justify the end—and, because the first half of the book doesn’t flaunt anything special in the way it’s written, I didn’t really appreciate the beginning until I had read to the end.

Still, I liked the messy look into the sisters’ relationship, the boy-next-door romance they teeter between, and the unique way in which the story is resolved.

A note on the ending: I kind of can’t believe I didn’t see it, not fully anyway—but I did have glimpses of suspicion based on some seemingly odd interactions and narrative. After the reveal it’s like: “Wait. Hmmm. Oh. Duh!” And then: “You We Were Liars’d me!” Hence the blurb from E. Lockhart herself. After the slight shock wears off and settles in a bit, it leads to a reading experience that, despite the unreliable narrator setup, turns out to be worth it.

let’s review: the diviners

theDivinersWell, if this book isn’t just the bee’s knees. Libba Bray’s The Diviners summons the glittering world of New York City in the 1920’s and throws in a spirit of mystery, murder, and mysticism–and a good case of the heebie jeebies.

Evie O’Neill can see others’ secrets through an object’s touch—a gift that gets her into trouble and sent to New York to live with her uncle, who runs the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult. Soon, Evie’s big city excitement and flapper girl spunk are interrupted by a series of murders marked with cryptic symbols and ominous warnings. Evie and her uncle end up in a devilish dance as they try to predict the killer’s next steps, but to stop this prophesied doomsday from coming may require some serious divine intervention.

The Diviners easily cast me under its spell with its enchanting Jazz Age atmosphere of speakeasies and youthful optimism, its cast of characters with special gifts and hidden pasts, and its gothic elements of old crumbling mansions and things that go bump in the night. Libba Bray certainly does not shy away from the creep factor: one minute it’s all, “Gee, kiddo, that’s the cat’s pajamas, how ‘bout some giggle water?” and the next, “Anoint thy flesh and prepare ye the walls of your houses” and turns creepy as all get-out.

Bray’s writing is descriptive but also keeps the story moving and more intriguing at every turn. A couple clues felt a bit too convenient, but I was too wrapped up in the story to care. I like how the perspective extends beyond Evie to glimpses of the other characters and how they connect to the larger story unfolding. The author does a good job of setting the stage for the sequel, to reopen the world of The Diviners, in which I will be charmed to fall back under.

leaving the middle (miles traveled & roots remembered)

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All of the years I have spent here I have never wandered

I live in the middle

The way you sing unlocks my heart just like a key

And brings you right back home to me

–Lily & Madeleine

I’ve only ever lived in the middle, where the land is flat and the rising action long settled. In the middle of the story, the characters are well known, nestled comfortably into the pages, unrushed by the turning corners of a familiar plot.

In my early chapters I have wandered little, if you consider the big picture, which is too big to fit inside the frame. But in the middle is where I find my roots: a town with one stoplight and well-lit porches, an island of antique shops and grocery store recognition floating amid a sea of corn stalks and country roads. We grew up at a breezeless pace, staying out late to lay on blankets spread over summer grass, draped beneath a small town sky stretched wide by stars.

When I moved to the city, it wasn’t so big, but big enough. I found new footing, reinvented my present self with the future in mind, still keeping the comfort of the middle with me.

In college, we joked about building a Utopia: you should come, we’ll all be there. That way we could stay together, a surrogate second family disguised as friends. Only in a different city–just transplanted. Ironically, a miniature Utopia accidentally formed, tucking some of us inside. Here, we greeted the real world, peeked out from behind careful blinds.

Gradually, we ventured out. Gave our grown up selves a name. Dreamed about some things.

And some years later, when a blurry dream came into focus, he and I, we said good good-byes, felt it all, packed up our things and decided to turn a page, to leave the middle.

And we drove west: across familiar landscapes and further, onto wider skies and blushing pink horizons, alongside rock walls hugging the road, hillsides climbing and clashing into mountains, stormy mornings stretching over badlands, stopping to admire the whimsy of nature on display in golden rocks and sulfur springs, trespassing through the homes of up-close wildlife, and each night, camping in a tent with a patient pup, packing up to do it again, back to open roads, through sideline forests, everything tinted green, driving up a mountain into the gathering fog from clouds resting atop its crest. Then, driving back down the mountain, around the park, across highways and pressing onward, getting close, closer, over the river and through these trees to our new little mountain home.

On our west-venture, there were a few times where we felt like we’d been swallowed up by some kind of fairy tale, being enveloped in a mountaintop cloud or feeling small against a make-believe backdrop of painted canyons and mammoth mists of geysers screaming at the top of their blue lungs. I stared at a huge bison just a few feet in front of me, chilling in his zen place. I hiked a trail to a hidden lake named after me. We did all of this. But what I didn’t do is stop remembering the people we were driving away from, the reason why the middle became such a good spot to be in the first place.

Before leaving home, we started to miss the people right in front of us. We received an unforgettable and heart-welling sendoff, and felt incredibly grateful for having these particular well-known characters in our story.

On my last day at work, I had three bags of library books to return. At first, I hadn’t understood why it felt like such a difficult thing to return these piles of books I’d been hoarding. I knew they needed to be returned; I knew I could simply jot down the titles I wanted to remember to look up again later, and that I clearly wouldn’t have enough time to read them now anyway. So why didn’t I just return them? Why wait until the last possible moment? More than once I had eyed them, months and days before, towering over my nightstand, noticing the book on top displaying its name: Our Endless Numbered Days.

My days in the middle were numbered. The pages of familiar stories were being turned, even as words scurried and collected in the corners, hoping to become one more sentence.

And I realized: these are borrowed stories.
And I don’t feel quite ready to give them back.

In one sense, of course, they are mine because I lived them. And for these endless, numbered days I’m grateful. But anything past the middle–the untouched pages in which familiar characters settle into future resolve, becoming resilient–I haven’t read that far.

let’s review: skim

skimHaving loved This One Summer by cousins and author/illustrator duo Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, I got a hold of their earlier work, Skim. Kim, called Skim (“because she’s not”) is seen as the quiet goth girl at her all girls’ private school. She and her best friend Lisa are into Wicca and not joining in with the other girls. When one student’s ex-boyfriend commits suicide, the school throws itself into grief coping with counselors and self-love exercises, and a Girls Celebrate Life! club started by some of the students. Some people are worried about Skim, who translate her gothness and often keeping to her self as red flags of depression. But really, Skim’s just tired of all the hype. Plus, she might also be in love.

Once again, I am impressed with the Tamakis’ ability to tell such a pointed, expressive story of adolescence and discovery with limited words and black-and-white minimalist yet articulate drawings. Skim completely captures the smart sensitivity, humor, and feeling of one girl seemingly on the outside, who observes the world around her in her own uniquely spirited ways.


let’s review: saint anything

saintanythingI’ve read Sarah Dessen books off and on since high school, and some are better than others. Something about reading them is nostalgic, I suppose, although I’m finding the writing to be less sophisticated. Saint Anything tells the story of Sydney, dealing with a shifting family dynamic as her older brother serves a jail sentence for drunk driving, this time injuring another boy. Sydney finds solace in friends at her new school, siblings Layla and Mac, who help run their family’s pizza parlor. Used to being second string as her family focuses on her brother, Sydney welcomes this second family she finds herself belonging to.

What Sarah Dessen books do well is the capturing of youthfulness: fitting in, balancing friendships, family dynamics and changes, identity, and budding romance. In Saint Anything, the meaningful metaphors Sydney realizes can feel contrived or a bit forced at times. There’s also several points of more telling than showing, or writing that feels somewhat lacking in places. However, I did still connect to Sydney’s story and became interested in how each relationship would progress—with her new best friend, friends from her old school, her interest in Mac, with her parents and her brother, and with the family friend Ames. Ultimately, the heart of a Sarah Dessen novel gets at the feeling of uncertainty in teen years, and the hope of belonging.

let’s review: paper towns


[disclaimer: this review contains a spoiler. to read spoiler-free, go here].

Margo Roth Spiegelman, the ultra cool, adventurous, beautiful, mysterious girl next door, has been just out of Quentin’s reach for most of his life. One night, she crawls through his bedroom dressed in black, summoning Q on a mission as her partner in crime. The next day, she disappears. Following a disjointed trail of breadcrumb clues, Quentin is determined to at last pinpoint and discover the real Margo.

Paper Towns definitely has that John Greeny style, infusing humor and intellectual musings into a story about teenagers. A lot of parts were funny, and I liked the dynamic between Quentin and his friends. I also liked the concept of accidentally viewing someone as an idea instead of a person—the Margo Roth Spiegelmans of our lives that appear differently from a distance than they do up close. This story does a good job of exploring the dichotomy between paper people and real people, expectations vs. reality. Even Margo must reckon with the idea of Margo. I think this can happen at any age, but in this case is a fitting exploration for graduating high school seniors on the brink of whatever comes next.

Overall, I thought there could have been a bit more to the story to really give it an extra dynamic boost of 3-D to contrast with the concept of paper towns. Maybe I was hoping for more side discovery and subplot while the Margo clues were coming together? Also, because I’ve seen John Green speak a few times, I was already familiar with the story behind paper towns as copyright traps on maps, so this explanation amid the building action before the final road trip was not as illuminating as it might have been otherwise. Still, I appreciated the interweaving of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and how its metaphors fit so well inside the story. I was rooting for Quentin to find Margo, and the clues and changing angles kept me interested. I’m curious to see how Paper Towns will translate to the big screen.

let’s review: i’ll give you the sun

illgiveyouthesunThis book made me feel like exclamation points, in a good way. I’ll Give You the Sun is dynamic YA writing at its best, like every sentence is supercharged with full-throttle feeling. Jandy Nelson captures not just an adolescent’s perspective, but two sides to the story of twins Noah and Jude, supremely connected and then disconnected and “divorced” from each other after a whole lot goes wrong. Noah, an offbeat artist who hasn’t picked up a pencil in a while, is in hiding from his true self. Superstitious Jude cuts off her hair and turns herself invisible, keeping company mostly with ghosts. Both are wading through some serious sadness and a tough few years. They’ll need each other (and the other half of the story) to see the full picture in all its multicolored meaning.

I’ll Give You the Sun made me feel all the feelings. My heart tugged for Noah and Jude and the characters in their story as all the pieces come together (“We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story”). Nelson writes convincingly with teen voices, the ups and downs and in-the-moment sense of extreme, the always and the nevers and the everythings. Her writing is hyperbolic and hilarious, while also tender and touching. My only critique is the sense of too much at times, like in the “do people actually talk/behave like this in real life?” kind of way. At the same time, I love that this story is so passionate and powerful–it’s loud and quiet and sad and exuberant and spilling over. This book is a burst of redorangeyellowgreenblueindigoviolet–a bright, beautiful, beaming story I’ll keep with me and save again for a rainy day.

let’s review: the book of speculation

bookofspeculation“I may never again hold another book this old, or one with such a whisper of me in it…”

Simon Watson, an archival librarian about to be unfunded out of a job, lives in his family’s old crumbling house on a cliff by the sea, tip-toeing around the ghosts of his parents and worrying about his sister, Enola, who left to join the circus like their mother, and is about to return home. Then, Simon receives a rare book from an antique bookseller who tracks down Simon by the name of his grandmother, found inside its pages–a traveling carnival logbook from the 1800’s. The women in Simon’s family, a line of performing “mermaids” who can hold their breath for an impossibly long time, apparently have a way of dying young–drowning themselves–all on July 24th. Simon sets out to uncover the deeper story at work–coincidence or curse?–in order to save his sister, and to reckon with his family’s buried secrets and the murky waters of his own history.

With lovely, layered prose and an alternating storyline, I became easily engrossed in The Book of Speculation. Erika Swyler’s writing beautifully weaves together the story of Simon and his family saga, immersing the reader in the long-ago tales of mermaids and fortune-tellers and a family of carnival cast-outs, of beautiful, dangerous girls with half-souls and a pull towards the tide–stories and prophecies colliding with the present day: a brother lost without his sister, a family separated by waves of sadness. Simon tries his best to preserve his family’s falling-apart home with the help of the neighbors, longtime family friends who get mixed up in the story, and Alice–always Alice, and the hope for love rising to the surface–”the things you do for people you’ve known your whole life.” I felt connected to these real characters, caught between dark waters and the will to keep moving forward. I love the way in which this story unfolds, not without a dose of suspending disbelief along the way. So many phrases pulled at me, which made a good story even better. The Book of Speculation is a compelling read to dive into–melancholy and magical, rare and strange, lovely and deep.

let’s review: a darker shade of magic

A Darker Shade final for Irene(warning: this review contains spoilers. Read the spoiler-free version here).

I’m surprised this book was shelved under the adult science fiction/fantasy section–everything about this novel reads as a teen book. Young protagonists, slightly less sophisticated writing (no offense), and lots of other teen/YA novels include a supernatural element without being singled out as SciFi/Fantasy. So I’m curious as to this publishing decision. I will give points for the cover and the concept: Grey/Red/White/Black Londons with doors between them that only magical Antari can enter, Kell of Red London being one of these few, marked by one black eye to signify his gift. Kell delivers messages between the royalty of the Londons, often smuggling tokens and talismans along the way, despite its danger. Kell is set up to fall into a tempting trap that delivers him a forbidden token from deserted Black London (of which no one speaks of), and in his attempt to flee, crosses path with Lila Bard, a pickpocketer and wannabe pirate who becomes Kell’s companion to the other Londons in order to return the dark magic to its rightful place. But other powers are at work between the worlds, and threaten to overthrow the balanced system that keeps all Londons intact.

At first, the writing in A Darker Shade of Magic felt a bit forced or over explained. Gradually, the writing got better and the story more interesting. I’m a sucker for stories with alternate worlds, (especially Londons). The setting was fitting for this story, involving thrones and crowns and power struggles and gritty taverns and masquerades–all with a touch of magic. I was hoping to learn more about Kell’s origins, as well as the truth behind Black London, but perhaps that’s being saved for later in the series. I will say, the ending felt rather anticlimactic–one of those tricky problems with a story involving magic–the solution is also magic (“Oh hey, we don’t actually have to do all this stuff!”) I was disappointed that after everything, they didn’t even need to go to Black London after all. I might be curious enough to read the next installments, but overall this book was not overly enticing as a set-up for a series. At times, I liked the ideas of the story a bit more than their execution. The sense of adventure and atmosphere present in A Darker Shade of Magic show promise, which is perhaps why I wanted a bit more.