Middle Grade Review: The Last Gargoyle

The Last Gargoyle
By Paul Durham
Published January 9, 2018 by Crown Books for Young Readers

The Last Gargoyle is an entertaining middle grade book with an interesting mythology and a creature that doesn’t get much fictional attention, gargoyles. Penhallow is a gargoyle (he prefers to call himself a grotesque) living in Boston. He’s one of three remaining gargoyles in the city, and the other two are killed off at the beginning of the book (it’s not much of a spoiler when you consider the title). Penhallow soon realizes that the city is facing a terrible threat, and he may the only hope of defeating this foe.

GargoyleWith his friends gone, Penhallow is the last of the city’s gargoyles, and it’s a lonely existence until he meets a mysterious girl named Viola. She’s cagey about who she is and why she can come and go as she pleases, but Penhallow finds himself warming to her and she’s his only companion in a lonely life.

The mythology is an interesting one. Gargoyles were carved by a Maker and they adorn various older structures in Boston. They were responsible for all inhabitants of the buildings they’re attached to, but all of the other gargoyles are just empty stones now. Penhallow can leave his gargoyle perch and take other forms to move around the city and to keep any eye on all the people who live in his building. He protects his wards from minor nuisances like imps, and the more serious threat of the netherkin, spirits of the dead who haven’t passed on to the next place (what exactly that next place is isn’t answered in the book because Penhallow himself doesn’t know).

This is a slightly dark middle grade book, since it deals with death and loneliness. Penhallow hasn’t been able to save everyone in his care over the years, and he bears the weight of that guilt. The nethekin are very creepy, and they want to steal children’s life force (what they’re stealing is never named, but the children who lose it are sad and troubled for the rest of their lives). Because of this, I would recommend this book for the older end of the age range.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

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Review: Nice Try, Jane Sinner

Nice Try, Jane Sinner
By Lianne Oelke
Published January 9, 2018 by Clarion Books

This book is really funny and delightful, and it has mental health representation. Jane Sinner (what a name) is at a crossroads. She’s been asked to leave her high school for unknown reasons (she alludes to a big event, but we don’t learn what happened until well into the book), and she’s enrolling in a community college to finish out her high school coursework. When she learns of a reality show featuring students at the college, she decides that it’s the perfect opportunity to reinvent herself.

Jane SinnerHouse of Orange is a decidedly low-budget reality show. The grand prize is a used car. The participants get discounted rent in a house where they have to live together. There are periodic challenges for smaller prizes, like a restaurant gift card. The show is on YouTube, although it gains popularity quickly and ends up being broadcast on local TV, which leads to some complications for Jane. I don’t watch any reality shows, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the portrayal, but everything about House of Orange is very funny.

The novel’s format is entries from Jane’s diary. This makes her an extremely unreliable narrator since we only see things from her point of view, and she even admits at times that she’s not being entirely honest with herself. A big chunk of the diary entries are dialogue between Jane and the other characters, with unspoken commentary from her. Jane is hilarious. She’s snarky and awesome, and she’s determined to win the contest, so her behavior is pretty ruthless. She’s taking a psychology class, and she tends to treat the show like it’s one big psychology experiment. There are also conversations between Jane and her imaginary psychiatrist, in which she tries to psychoanalyze herself, which is hilarious.

Jane is dealing with some mental health issues, and she has quit therapy, so in a sense, she’s using the reality show as a form of therapy. As you can imagine, this is not terribly effective. Part of Jane’s issues is coming to terms with religious differences between her and her parents. Jane’s parents are very religious and think every problem can be solved by prayers, while Jane has come to realize that she no longer shares her parents’ beliefs. I liked the way this issue was handled

I did have a couple of issues with the book. My main complaint is that I found it unrealistic that Jane’s parents would allow their 17-year-old daughter, who has some pretty serious issues, to move out on her own. I also found that the book was a bit choppy in places. A couples of times something happened that confused me and I had to flip back to see if I had missed something. I read an advanced copy, so it’s possible that this issue will be tweaked before publication. In any case, neither of these issues were dealbreakers for me, and I really enjoyed the book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

My Reading Goals for 2018

It’s a new year, and it’s a clean slate for reading. I failed in many of my goals for 2017, so I’m going to try to be realistic about what I’d like to read in 2018.

I would like to read more nonfiction. I have a big shelf of science books, and I hope to get to at least a few of them this year. I’m hoping to read at least three nonfiction books.

I want to read some classic novels. This goal obviously didn’t work out for me last year, but I’ll try again. I think part of the reason I didn’t make last year’s goal is that I just wasn’t that interested in the five books I chose. I think that if I choose books I’m more interested in, I have a better chance of achieving this. I’m going to aim for three classic books. I have some titles in mind: Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights (I’ve read it before, but not in many years), and The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

I would like to try to read fewer books than in 2017, emphasizing quality over quantity. We’ll see how that goes. In 2017, I read 125 books. This year, I’ve set a Goodreads goal of 75.

I’m hoping to post more on this blog. I did better in the second half of the year, and I want to maintain that momentum. I need to get back to the original purpose of the blog, re-reading my childhood favorites. I would like to alternate re-reads with new books.

Best of 2017 and My Reading Year in Review

Here is a short list of my favorite books of 2017. I read a lot of good books this year, and it was hard to pick my favorites. I’ve broken my list down into books published this year and books published before 2017. If I’ve reviewed a book, it’s linked to the review.

Published in 2017:
Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater
A Million Junes by Emily Henry
The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
This is a stunning book of short stories. The tales aren’t retellings, but there are some obvious influences (The Little Mermaid, The Nutcracker, Beauty and the Beast, Hansel and Gretel). Bardugo subverts fairytale tropes and the stories all take unexpected turns. The book is also beautifully illustrated.
Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick

Honorable Mentions:
Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
The Hearts We Sold by Emily Lloyd-Jones
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green
A gut-wrenching book about a teen with mental illness. It’s hard to read at times, but so worthwhile.

Books published in other years:
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab
This one is a savage little gut punch about what it means to be a monster. Highly recommended, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel in 2018.
Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo
Even better than the first book in the series. A gang of misfits tries to pull off the con of a lifetime. The plotting is beautifully done, and the characters are diverse and memorable.
Blood Red, Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
It’s historical fiction in the guise of a fairytale, and like all of Marcus Sedgwick’s YA books, it doesn’t feel very YA.
10 Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
A collection of essays about books by a very funny writer. Highly entertaining.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I first read this book when I was 16, and it had a massive influence on me. I re-read it this year, and found it still just as powerful (and it hits awfully close to home at the moment).

Honorable Mentions:
Carry On by Rainbow Rowell
Rowell’s Fangirl is one of my favorite books, but I had put off reading Carry On. I finally got to it this year, and I loved it. It’s sort of the queer Harry Potter story you’ve always wanted.
Lady Midnight by Cassandra Clare
I was a little wary about yet another Shadowhunter series, but this one is really good and packed a serious emotional wallop.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
This was a re-read for me, but it had been many years. I had forgotten how funny and clever this book is. It’s probably not most people’s favorite Austen, but it ranks highly for me.

I had such grand plans for what I was going to read this year: lots of nonfiction, diverse books, a pile of literary fiction, and those five classic Victorian novels. And I mostly failed. I read very little nonfiction, no literary fiction, and none of the classic Victorian novels. I did manage some diversity in terms of POC, LGBT, and mental health representation. I could still do better, but at least that’s something.

Honestly, this year was a rough one in terms of the world, and when you wake up every day and check the news to see if we’re at war with North Korea (or lately, which public figure has been outed as a sexual predator), reading becomes an escape. I read a lot of YA fantasy. Sometimes, it’s good to escape into another world.

In terms of quantity, 2017 was a good reading year. I read a total 125 books. The majority of these books were young adult, which accounts for my getting through so many. Fifteen were re-reads (I’m trying to finish up various series I’ve started but not finished, and this sometimes entails re-reading earlier volumes). I am also a fast reader, and this year, I tended to prioritize reading over other activities.

 

Review: The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily

The Love Letters of Abelard and Lily
Laura Creedle
Published December 26, 2017 by HMH Books for Young Readers

“I am broken because I have a disability. I am broken because I am incapable of sitting still for hours at a time and performing the mind-numbing repetitive tasks that I am required to do. Abelard is broken because he can’t smile and say hello, and he doesn’t like crowds, which is basically what high school is–one giant, swirling, chaotic crowd.”

Lily is a high school student with ADHD. School is a daily chaotic torture for her. She’s skipping class, and she’s failing many of her classes, because her ADHD makes the bureaucratic nonsense of high school extremely difficult for her, even though she’s very smart. A mishap with a broken door lands her in detention with Abelard, a fellow student who’s on the autism spectrum. After Lily randomly kisses Abelard (she has definite issues with impulse control), the two form a connection and begin texting each, using quotes from the Letters of Abelard Heloise (a pair of star-crossed medieval lovers).

AbelardI really liked this book. It’s good to see ADHD and autism representation in a YA book. From my limited knowledge of ADHD, the portrayal seemed realistic. I really felt like I was inside the mind of a teenage with ADHD, and it showed how difficult life can be for someone with this condition. Some of the dialogue in the book is rendered as partial nonsense to show how Lily experiences it: “You’ll note, Miss Michaels-Ryan, that I have filled out a Skrellnetch form for you. Your mother will have to sign the kerblig and return it to the main office before you can be burn to clabs.” The portrayal of Abelard’s ASD felt realistic too, although we see less of his struggle since this is really Lily’s story.

Lily felt like a very realistic teenager. She’s not one of those extemely precocious, totally unrealistic YA teens. She’s a smart, but rather immature teenage with some serious impulse control issues. The mom in me wanted to shake Lily a few times, and say please tell someone that the drugs make you feel dead inside and that you have suicidal ideation. But her not telling anyone feels realistic and true to the character.

The romance is very sweet, and although it’s important to the plot, it’s not the sole focus. The book is just as much about Lily feeling broken and unfixable. I found Lily’s relationship with her mother a bit more compelling. Her mother is doing the best she can; she’s a single mom with limited resources and she’s in over her head. But she is really trying, and she leaps at the opportunity for a new treatment that might help Lily. Lily views all of her mother’s attempts to help her as merely trying to “fix” her, so there’s a lot of tension.

If you care about such things, the romance in this book is extremely chaste, on account of Abelard having issues with being touched. Although there is some kissing, most of the romance is over texts quoting the actual letters of Heloise and Abelard. (This is pretty swoony stuff for us medieval history buffs.)

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

 

Review: A Million Junes

A Million Junes
By Emily Henry
Published May 16, 2017 by Razorbill

A Million Junes was sort of under the radar for me. I hadn’t seen reviews from anyone I follow, and although I’d seen the cover and thought, “Oooh, pretty,” I hadn’t added it to my TBR. I finally read the description and realized it’s got all sorts of things I love: star-crossed lovers, ghosts, magical realism, and family secrets, so I picked it up.

A Million JunesThis one is really good, and I want to start pushing it on people. “Read this. No, really, read this!” That said, this book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. If you’re not into magical realism, this may not be the book for you.

June O’Donnell s starting her senior year of high school when Saul Angert returns to town. The O’Donnells and the Angerts have been mortal enemies for several generations, supposedly because of a feud over the land that was once the O’Donnell’s cherry tree farm. June’s late father Jack O’Donnell III (June is actually Jack IV, but most people call her Junior or June) raised her on stories of the O’Donnell men’s glory and the perfidy of the Angerts. The family’s cardinal rule is stay away from the Angerts. So, of course, there’s an immediate attraction between June and the newly returned Saul.

Having grown up in the O’Donnell’s magical farmhouse, complete with two ghosts (a pink benign one and a dark, possibly malevolent one), and being raised on the O’Donnell tall tales, June has bought fully bought into the family mythology. Saul is much more skeptical, doesn’t believe in the curse that supposedly brings harm to both families, and sees no reason to stay away from June.

The romance is lovely and fraught with the complications of family history. I really appreciated that although the romance was important to the plot, the other relationships were also very important. June has a great relationship with her best friend Hannah and a good but sometimes tense relationship with her mother. And then there’s her relationship with her late father, Jack III. Even though he’s been dead for 10 years, he’s still a huge part of her life, and the idea of going against everything he told her and getting involved with an Angert is hard for her to get past, even as she begins to learn that the family legends her father passed along to her may not be the whole truth.

The magical elements are really well done. There are ghosts, coywolves who steal shoes, and white balls of fluff that float around the house and contain memories. I know it sounds a bit twee, but it all works in the context of the book, and the writing is just lovely. 4.5 stars.

Review: Saint Death

Saint Death
Marcus Sedgwick
Published 2017 by Roaring Brook Press

I’m a big fan of Marcus Sedgwick’s work, and Midwinter Blood and Ghosts of Heaven are two of my all-time favorite books. I was really looking forward to Saint Death, and Sedgwick did not disappoint. This is an unflinching look at poverty, economic injustice, and violence.

Set in a small town called Anapra on the outskirts of Juarez, Mexico, Saint Death is the story of a young man named Arturo. Arturo exists on the edges of society. He’s basically alone in the world, he lives in a shack with no water or electricity, and he has only occasional work at a local garage. Anapra is a dismal place. People live in makeshift shacks, they’re terribly poor, and they’re at constant risk of violence from drug trafficking gangs.

SaintDeathOne day, Arturo’s foster brother, Faustino, shows up looking for help. Arturo hasn’t seen Faustino in a couple of years, and Faustino has gotten himself into trouble. He’s been working for a drug gang, and he took $1000 from a stash of cash that his boss left with him for safekeeping. He spent the money to pay coyotes to smuggle his girlfriend and their infant son over the border into the United States. But now he needs to replace the money, and he wants Arturo to join a high stakes card game to try to win cash for him. Arturo is an expert at the card game Calavera, and Faustino is convinced that he can win enough money to save him. Arturo is hesitant, but loyalty to Faustino wins out and he agrees to play the game.

Unsurprisingly, nothing turns out as expected, and Arturo and Faustino are in way over their heads. This book is very tense; you know things can’t possible turn out well when an unworldly kid goes up against some very bad men, but you’re rooting for Arturo even as he makes some very bad decisions (although it’s hard not to make some bad decisions when you have no good options). Although it’s just over 200 pages and hard to put down, I wouldn’t call Saint Death an easy read. Sedgwick doesn’t shy away from portraying the desperation and brutality that Arturo faces every day. Anapra is a grim, hopeless place, and if you’ve ever wondered why someone might risk everything to slip over the border into the United States, this book goes a long way toward explaining it. The poverty is grinding, the police look the other way while the drug gangs run the town, women disappear without a trace, and Mexican workers are paid a pittance in factories that produce components that are shipped to the United States and assembled into “Made in the USA” products.

There’s a lot of vivid imagery in Saint Death. The title refers to La Santa Muerte (literally Saint Death), a deity in Mexican folk religion whose iconography is a female skeletal figure. Her cult has grown in recent years, and Faustino insists that he and Arturo visit a shrine to her before the card game. Arturo is dubious about her, but his thoughts return to her throughout the book and he has the sense that she’s watching him. I’m fascinated by the Santa Muerte iconography, and the representation of the skull on the cover is really effective for the story.

This is a really important book given our current political climate. Highly recommended.