Review: Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen
By Val Emmich with Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul
Published October 9, 2018 by Poppy/Little, Brown

I went into Dear Evan Hansen not knowing much about it. I’d heard of the hit Broadway musical, and the book sounded interesting, so I picked it up. I found the book very gripping at first, and I was quickly sucked into the story. But about halfway through, I Dear Evan Hansenbegan to feel very uncomfortable.

The premise is an intriguing one: Evan Hansen, a teen suffering from severe anxiety, gets involved with the family of a dead classmate after a (tragi-) comedy of errors leads the family to think he was their trouble late son’s secret best friend. He gets sucked into their lives and then doesn’t want to leave. He becomes a more confident person and sheds his anxiety. But everything he’s doing is a lie, and I just couldn’t get past that.

It’s a mistake that causes the Murphy family to think Evan was their son’s secret friend, but after that, Evan works hard to maintain the lie. He fakes emails, spins elaborate stories about the dead kid, and worms his way into the family’s lives, all the while telling himself he’s helping them. There were so many points at which he could have told the truth or backed away, but he doesn’t and it made me really dislike his character.

I thought the book was pretty well written, but since the whole premise really bothered me, I think this book just wasn’t for me. The concept probably works very differently on stage and maybe the issues I have with the book wouldn’t be as much of an issue.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

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Review: Sadie

Sadie
By Courtney Summers
Published September 4, 2018 by Wednesday Books

Sadie is a nasty little gutpunch of a book. Part true-crime podcast, part revenge narrative, this book is compulsively readable.

Reporter West McCray is on the trail of Sadie Hunter, a missing girl. A few months Sadieearlier, Sadie’s 13-year-old sister, Mattie, was murdered. Now Sadie herself is gone, apparently of her own volition. The reporter isn’t sure about the story at first, thinking it’s just another missing girl, but he quickly finds himself sucked in.

Sadie Hunter has had a rough life. Born to a teenaged single mother, she never knew her father. She grew up in a trailer, and her mother is disinterested and neglectful. Sadie has a bad stutter, something that probably could have been ameliorated with help, but her mother just didn’t bother. Sadie’s entire life has been based around taking care of her younger sister, and when her sister is murdered, Sadie is left rudderless. But she finds a new purpose: searching for the man she believes killed her sister.

The narrative switches between Sadie’s first person narrative, and transcripts of the podcast. I think the switch between narrative styles works really well, both in terms of revealing clues to the mystery, but also to give the reader a break from the intensity of Sadie’s narrative. The transcripts are by their very nature a more detached narrative, but then all of a sudden, there will be a revelation that makes you sit up and take notice. It’s a really clever format.

This book is brutal. Because of her stutter, people tend to underestimate Sadie, but as she says:

“I’m the result of baby bottles filled with mountain dew. I have a system that doesn’t quite know how to process the finer things in life. My body is sharp enough to cut glass and in desperate need of rounding out, but sometimes I don’t mind. A body might not always be beautiful, but a body can be a beautiful deception. I’m stronger than I look.”

Sadie’s narrative is hard to read at times. She’s so single-minded, but danger lurks at every turn and it’s sort of like watching a horror movie, where you want to scream, “No, don’t go in there.” Her journey takes her to a lot of ugly places, and she meets some awful people. There’s a sense of inevitability about her quest, and even with all the dread I was feeling, I couldn’t put the book down.

West McCray is ambivalent about the story at first. As awful as it is to say, girls go missing all the time and he doesn’t think the story is that interesting. But May Beth, Sadie and Mattie’s surrogate grandmother, won’t let things go and her determination makes him decide there’s something more to the story. As he investigates Sadie’s disappearance, he finds himself emotionally involved in the mystery.

This book was so gripping, and I can’t recommend it enough. Courtney Summer has a long backlist, and I’ll be checking her earlier books.

TW: child molestation

 

 

 

Review: Dance of Thieves

Dance of Thieves
By Mary E. Pearson
Published August 7, 2018 by Henry Holt and Co.

When I heard that Mary Pearson was writing a new trilogy set in the world of the Remnant Chronicles, I was excited but also a little worried. I love the original trilogy so much, and I wasn’t sure a new one would live up to its predecessor. But I needn’t have worried. Dance of Thieves is a worthy successor.

Dance of Thieves_FINAL 9.18It’s not strictly necessary to have read the previous trilogy before you read Dance of Thieves, but I think you’ll enjoy the new book more if you’ve read the original books. We’re introduced to two new characters, Kazi and Jase. Kazi is a former street thief, who’s reformed and become a member of the Queen of Venda’s guards. Jase has just become the head of the Ballenger clan, a band of outlaws who run a large territory that’s mostly outside the authority of the other kingdoms. Kazi is on a mission to find a missing war criminal who may be hiding out somewhere in the Ballenger’s domain.

When Kazi and Jase meet, it doesn’t go well. She publicly humiliates him, not realizing he’s the head of the family, and they end up being kidnapped. The first third of the book is basically the two of them alone on a long journey. This is a trope I love: two people who can’t stand each forced into an uneasy alliance. It works really well here, and we see a lot of character development through their interactions.

I liked Kazi right from the start. She’s had a rough life, she’s tough, and she’s anxious to prove herself to the queen. I wasn’t sure about Jase at first. He comes across as a cocky jerk at first, but as we learn more about him, I liked him much better.

Their relationship is an interesting one. They’re forced to trust each other when they’re on their own in the wilderness, and they grow closer, but when they’re back in Jase’s territory, there’s a lot of tension. Each of them has secrets they can’t share with the other, and they build up walls, even as they’re developing feelings. Their cat and mouse game is highly entertaining.

I loved getting to explore a new part of this world. The Ballenger’s domain and the kingdom of Eislandia are new places. Also, just as in the original trilogy, there are bits and pieces of the early history of the Remnants, and we see briefly how the Ballengers fit into the history of Gaudrel and the other kingdoms. I love the backstory of the kingdoms and it’s interesting to get a new perspective on the history.

This is the first book in a two-book series. The end has some closure, but also opens up a lot of other issues, so I’ll be anxiously awaiting the second book.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Storm-Wake

Storm-Wake
By Lucy Christopher
Published July 31, 2018 by Chicken House/Scholastic

Storm-Wake is an interesting book, and it’s beautifully written, but I never felt a connection to it. It’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and it initially stays quite close to the plot of the play. A young girl named Moss and her father, Pa, live alone on a deserted island where they were shipwrecked some years before. Pa tells Moss that Storm-wakefloods have claimed the rest of the world and that they’re safe on their island. The island is covered in flowers that Pa tries to use for magic to cure the rest of the world.

One day, a boy comes out of the water and joins their family. They call him Callan, and he seems not quite human. He looks like a boy, but has webbed hands and feet and scale patterns on his skin. Moss and Cal grow up together, but Pa begins to not trust Cal, thinking that Cal may be stealing Moss away from him. Then when Moss and Cal are teens (their ages are never specified, but they seem to be older), two more boys come out of the sea and threaten the fragile peace of the found family.

The first half of the book meanders along. Not much happens. Pa eats flowers that seem to drug him. He may be sick. Moss and Cal explore the island. Pa gets mad at Cal. Years pass. When two boys shipwreck on the island, the pace of story picks up, and Moss begins to question her relationship with Pa. Has he been lying to her? Is he mentally ill?

I enjoyed the second half of the book more than the first, but the initially slow pace made it hard for me to feel connected to the story or the characters. Even when the story became more compelling, I was never that absorbed in it. I can’t decide whether I feel it should have been a shorter book that focused on the action in the second half, or a longer book that explored the odd family dynamics in more detail. That said, Lucy Christopher’s writing is beautiful.

I received an ARC from Amazon Vine.

Review: Chaotic Good

Chaotic Good
By Whitney Gardner
Published by Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers on March 13, 2018

Chaotic Good is a seemingly lightweight book that deals with some serious issues in a sensitive way. It takes on sexism, toxic masculinity, online harassment, and gender roles.

Chaotic Good Comps14.inddCameron is having a rough summer. She’s just moved to a smaller town from Portland. She hasn’t made any friends yet, she’s bored, and she’s being harassed online. Cameron is a talented seamstress who makes her own cosplay costumes. She recently won a contest, and when she mentioned publicly that she doesn’t actually play the game she made a costume from, the online abuse starts. She’s called an attention whore, pathetic, and other far less printable things. She visits the local comic book store looking for some costume inspiration. Unfortunately, the guy who runs the place is a sexist jerk, who says her boyfriend won’t like the comics she’s picked out, points her to the “girl section,” and belittles her taste. But it’s the only comic book store in her town, so she decides to borrow some of her twin brother’s clothes and return disguised as a boy, hoping to avoid the sexist scrutiny.

The whole thing goes perfectly. She’s treated well at the store, and ends up being asked to join a Dungeons and Dragons group. She’s happy to make friends, and it becomes harder and harder to come clean about her true identity.

This book is really great. It takes on serious issues, but also manages to be really funny and poignant. Cameron masquerading as a boy has a very Twelfth Night vibe. There’s some romantic confusion: Her new friend Why falls for her in her boy guise, while she’s interested in another guy, Lincoln, and her brother Cooper has a thing for Why. Being a boy gives her a sense of safety and security. As she says:

“Two stoners nod at me as I leave the park. I nod back and keep walking. Normally, I’d be a little bit worried. Worried that they might follow me, or that they might have bad intentions. But I don’t feel nervous walking alone in my boy clothes, and I realize this is why I kept it up so long. This feeling of inevitability, of unquestioned acceptance. It was addicting. Comfortable. Easy. At least I thought it was.”

She’s under so much pressure in her female body, and her boy persona is a welcome relief. And even though things become very complicated, it’s really hard for her to give up the masquerade when it makes her feel safe, something she’s lacking because of the aggressive harassment.

The online harassment that Cameron endures is awful, and when she tries to defend herself online, it gets much worse. Her phone number is posted and she starts getting death threats. It’s really hard to imagine how anyone can think that death threats are a appropriate way to express your annoyance with a young woman who made a costume from a game she didn’t play, but given what happens when a woman dares to express an opinion online, this all feels unfortunately realistic. As Cameron says,

“What did I expect? I expected to post some photo ops and get stupid reaction gifs from my friends. Not hundreds of pages of abuse, not death threats growled at me through my phone.”

I wish I could say that the character of Brody, the comic store manager, is too over the top, but he’s pretty realistic. He’s a classic “nice guy” who thinks that women owe him something just because he’s polite to them. The author does a good job of making Brody three-dimensional, and ultimately, we see that his behavior is rooted in fear.

My only complaint is that the ending wraps up perhaps a little too neatly, but this is a minor quibble and didn’t affect my enjoyment overall.

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.