Book Review: Someone’s Story

This thought provoking young adult novel is a poignant portrayal of mental health and the power of friendship.

Someone’s Story by B.A. Bellec

I encountered this book through an author networking site and decided to give it a read.

Description

Someone’s Story is the tale of a teenager who refers to himself as Someone. A new school gives him a clean slate, but also triggers his anxiety. The story follows him as he makes friends, makes mistakes, and makes peace with his own troubled mind.

Character

Someone is a well-rounded character, flawed but growing. His struggles are personal, yet universal, and his journey of perseverance and acceptance is deeply moving. His group of “weirdos” are a fantastic representation of the power of friendship to overcome adversity.

I have mixed feelings about the protagonist referring to himself as Someone, implying that this could happen to anyone. I can see this approach being successful in two different ways. In one sense, the protagonist’s anxiety causes him to avoid attention. His previous struggles with social skills cause him to fear being “that guy.” He wants to be “normal,” but his weirdo friends teach him that nobody is normal.

In an opposite sense, the self-designation of Someone alludes to his goal to “be somebody.” He doesn’t want to disappoint his father, doesn’t want to waste his life. To that end, he pursues challenging goals, starting with running.

Unfortunately, I feel like the author was reaching for both these concepts and caught neither. Neither is sufficiently emphasized to stand out as a central message. Furthermore, the character isn’t generic enough to be just “someone.” For one, he is male. To make it truly generic, the author could have edited out the mild romantic parts. As another point, it isn’t just anybody who becomes a passionate advocate for blonde roast coffee and 90s movies. Lastly, I don’t buy that the friends who got close enough to him to share their deep dark secrets wouldn’t have learned his name. At the very least, a teacher calling attendance would have revealed it. The author could have kept the name a secret from the reader, but implied the other characters knew it. Instead, the protagonist introduces himself to his new friends as Someone, and no one probes the reasoning behind that choice even after getting to know him.

I’m glad the character wasn’t a generic someone. I found my eyes skipping over the dialogue tags to spare my mind from thinking of him that way. I cannot relate to an abstract, generic homo sapien, but I can relate to the narrator’s crusade against the dark roast, even though I myself do not drink caffeine. These details make him human, which makes him relatable. A real name would have helped.

That said, the choice of Someone made me think enough to write five paragraphs. Perhaps that’s the point. This book is nothing if not thought provoking. My head was spinning for hours after finishing it.

Plot

I made the mistake of reading reviews before picking up this book. A few of them mentioned the book started off slow. I’m not sure whether I would have come to that conclusion without the priming, but I will say the first third of the story is fairly low drama. Having been raised reading The Lord of the Rings, I don’t mind a slow read, so this wasn’t an issue for me.

The plot follows Someone as he makes the most of his fresh start at a new school. His mental health challenges him, but as he gets closer to his friends, he realizes he isn’t the only “weirdo.” He gets into trouble, makes mistakes, and learns from them like any teenager, though the challenges he faces at the end are well “above the call of duty.” There are some odd scenes involving drugs, but they fit with the overall tone.

Writing Style

I typically abhor the stream-of-consciousness style of narration, but Bellec uses it to spectacular effect. Rather than spewing whatever random observations come to mind, the protagonist’s thoughts are sharp and relevant, just enough to really get into his perspective. The tone in the beginning of the novel is engaging, almost haunting. I quickly found myself tuned to the rhythm of the words.

Books like this are often written from the author’s own experience, which can lead to a lack of continuity as the author fixates on “how it really happened” and lectures the reader on the lessons learned. Not so with Someone’s Story. The story has a compelling structure, and Bellec does a wonderful job weaving the life lessons into the narrative such that the reader learns them alongside the protagonist. Someone makes many profound observations about life, but at no point does the prose read like a self-help book.

Theme

For me, the big winner of this novel is its theme. In a world where everyone has 800 Facebook friends but no one to pick them up at the airport, the value of genuine friendship can never be overstated. The protagonist’s goal is to make friends, but he takes it a step further than he ever has by getting to know them beyond a surface level. This enormous risk causes both him and his friends a great deal of pain, but it also teaches him about acceptance, forgiveness, perseverance, and perspective. In the end, these friendships help him overcome his mental health challenges.

Conclusion

This artfully written novel tears down our social media-dominated definition of friendship in favor of a deeper connection by which “weirdos” can band together to overcome adversity. A flawed group of teens, struggling to play with the cards the world dealt them, learn to accept themselves and to support each other as they journey through life’s most awkward phase. The plot progresses slowly through the first third of the book, but the writing style and tone are engaging from page one. While I would have preferred a named character, the protagonist’s self-designation as “Someone” is thought provoking. His struggles with mental health serve as a poignant demonstration of strength growing from vulnerability. Overall, this insightful story is a shining example of perseverance and the power of friendship.


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Book Review: Lock and Key

I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books.

Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen

I hadn’t heard of this best-selling author until a few months ago when Twitter exploded. Apparently, a college group met to decide which books to include in a literature course. One young woman joined the committee with the sole goal of preventing them from selecting Sarah Dessen’s work. Dessen tweeted how hurt she was, not realizing that in doing so she would unleash an attack mob. Dessen’s fans virtually harassed the young woman until she had to change her entire online presence. Dessen later apologized, but ever since then, I’ve been curious about her books, so the other day at the library, I picked up this one.

Description

Ever since her mom abandoned her, Ruby has been living a lie, biding her time alone in the decrepit yellow house until she turns eighteen and can legally live by herself. Her precious independence dissolves when the landlords report her to a social worker. Sent to live with her wealthy sister Cora, who ditched her and her mother ten years ago, Ruby finds herself thrust into a new world: huge house, private school, expensive clothes…maybe even a future in college?

Her new world shifts her perspective of her old world, and Ruby befriends the friendly-to-a-fault popular boy next door, Nate. As their friendship grows, she realizes she isn’t the only one living a lie.

Characters

Ruby views the world with typical adolescent skepticism—don’t get close to anyone, don’t get hurt—but she is not so closed that she cannot evaluate her perspective when confronted. She is guarded, yet vulnerable.

Nate is the too-handsome, too-perfect type I usually hate, but Dessen gets away with it by making his inner life far from perfect. The other minor characters each have their quirks. I liked them, though I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complain that the smart guy is a braces-faced dork. Smart people don’t always need braces and glasses and lessens in social skills.

Okay, stepping off my soapbox now.

Plot

This is a character-driven novel. Most of the plot forces Ruby to come to terms with her past. Her decisions are a battle between old Ruby and new Ruby. She makes many mistakes, but uses the lessens learned to form new relationships. These insights allow her to reconcile with her sister and to pick up on what is happening with Nate.

Writing Style

Dessen’s prose is clean and simple, appropriate for the target audience. Her tone is approachable, even though the book takes on multiple difficult topics. To me, Ruby’s “life lessons” felt force-fed to the reader, giving the theme a patronizing air. Perhaps the writing style irked the ill-fated critic. It lacks the intensity and sharpness of, say, Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins. At no point did I pause after reading a sentence to just admire its construction, but neither did I stumble over any grammatical garden paths or misused words.

Miscellaneous

There are many variations of the cover design. I like them all about the same.

Conclusion

Should this win the Nobel Prize for Literature? No, but I don’t think it’s trying to. Dessen’s prose may not be swoon-worthy, but its easy-on-the-brain style makes it perfect for curling up on the couch and escaping for a couple hours. Her characters are quirky, yet relatable. The topic is serious, yet approachable, and the themes are universal. All in all, I am grateful to the critic for bringing this author to my attention. I will happily read another book by her.

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Book Review: Burned and Smoke

Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving.

Burned and Smoke by Ellen Hopkins

This duology was my first experience with books in verse. I will definitely read more.

Back Cover Description for Burned

“Raised in a religious—yet abusive—family, Pattyn Von Stratten starts asking questions—about God, a woman’s role, sex, love. She experiences the first stirrings of passion, but when her father catches her in a compromising position, events spiral out of control. Pattyn is sent to live with an aunt in the wilds of Nevada to find salvation and redemption. What she finds instead is love and acceptance—until she realizes that her old demons will not let her go.”

Characters

Pattyn, the eldest daughter in a large Mormon family, starts questioning her family’s faith. She already wrestled with her “good Mormon father’s” alcoholism, so when teenage hormones hit and she develops sexual feelings, those questions increase. She doesn’t want the traditional role of Mormon mother of as-many-as-possible. When her genuine questions are answered with hypocrisy, she rebels.

While the author portrays Pattyn as a flawed human with sincere questions, Ethan, the boy she meets on the ranch in Nevada, leaves much to be desired. Like many leading males in romance novels, Ethan is too perfect. Good-looking and considerate, he doesn’t struggle as Pattyn does. The romance lacks chemistry at the beginning. There is no reason for Ethan to pursue Pattyn other than her looks, though the author implies otherwise.

Perhaps I am picky, but too-perfect guys annoy me. Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Ethan comes across as a savior, not a partner.

Plot

The story is more character-driven than plot-driven; it centers on Pattyn’s questions about God and love. Poignant and beautifully written poems allow the reader inside her private contemplations as various events shape her beliefs. The plot intensifies dramatically toward the end, which is refreshing but not satisfying. That is why I went straight to the sequel, Smoke after finishing.

Smoke picks up where Burned leaves off, but adds a subplot for Pattyn’s younger sister, Jackie, whose rape is covered up by the LDS community, including her own mother. Smoke built much more suspense throughout the plot, though I don’t think it satisfied the theme of redemption and second loves. Both love stories felt too hasty for me.

I found myself disappointed with the endings. Pattyn questions and rejects her faith, but her new beliefs are ill-defined and center around her love life. She abandons the LDS church to escape their oppressive patriarchy, but then she latches on to Ethan. Perhaps it is because I am religious myself, but I think a boyfriend is a poor substitute for God. I’m not saying she should have converted to another religion, but I wish she had found her own principles, her own foundation that didn’t depend on anyone else, especially not some boy.

A boyfriend is a poor substitute for God.

Writing Style

This is the first I’ve read from Ellen Hopkins, and I adored her writing. Her poems are lyrical without being esoteric. A non-poetry fan could read these books and follow the story with ease. She packs a great deal of power into a few words, especially the poems where she pulls out keywords to form their own sentence. Both Burned and Smoke were beautiful reads.

Conclusion

Burned and Smoke tackle a difficult subject—abuse, rape, and trauma recovery. The content wasn’t too graphic for me, but you must use your own discretion. Both books delve into life’s gray areas and provide a glimpse into the unfiltered questions of two hurting and confused young women. Beautifully written and emotionally moving, each book took only a couple hours to read—one advantage of poetry is brevity. Overall, I would recommend these books, provided you’re not squeamish about the content. I got them as a gift, but I wouldn’t regret spending money on such beautiful writing. Buy both though. Once you finish Burned, you’ll want the closure offered in Smoke.


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Book Review: I’m Not Dying with You Tonight

This book ought to be required reading. It’s short, fast-paced, and thought provoking without being accusatory. The contrast between the girls’ perspectives make for an engaging read. Fans of The Hate U Give will love it.

I’m Not Dying with You Tonight by Kimberly Jones and Gilly Segal

This book is especially relevant given what has been going on in the US and around the world these past couple months. I first heard about it during an online writers’ conference and was bummed that my library didn’t have a paperback copy. Lucky for me, they had the ebook. This was a quick read—perfect for squeezing between other duties.

Cover Description

“Over the course of one night, two girls with two very different backgrounds must rely on each other to get through the violent race riot that has enveloped their city.

Lena has her killer style, her awesome boyfriend, and a plan. She knows she’s going to make it big. Campbell, on the other hand, is just trying to keep her head down and get through the year at her new school.

When both girls attend the Friday-night football game, what neither expects is for everything to descend into sudden mass chaos. Chaos born from violence and hate. Chaos that unexpectedly throws them together.

They aren’t friends. They hardly understand the other’s point of view. But none of that matters when the city is up in flames, and they only have each other to rely on if they’re going to survive the night.”

Characters

Lena has a big mouth and a bigger attitude. She’s fashionable, opinionated, and not even a riot can stand between her and her goals. Campbell is quiet, grieving the loss of her old life—friends, track team, living with her mom—and struggling to adapt to her new reality.

The story focuses almost exclusively on these two characters, which poses the risk of making them archetypes for their respective races: the sassy and ambitious African American girl and the mousy and naïve Caucasian one. The authors avoid falling into typecasting by giving each character at least one non-stereotypical characteristic: Campbell is not rich, and Lena is not as well-versed in “the hood” as Campbell assumes.

I agree with the authors’ choice to focus on Lena and Campbell because the strength of the novel is their contrasting perspectives. For example, Campbell views the police as saviors, while Lena knows they will inflame already raging tempers. Contrasts like these make the story compelling.

Plot

The book alternates between Lena and Campbell’s perspective as the riot begins and they try to navigate their way to safety. They each have separate goals. Lena wants nothing more than to reach her boyfriend, and Campbell needs to check on her father’s hardware store. They stick together despite their differences, even though every step they take brings them further into trouble.

When describing the riot, the authors did an excellent job keeping the focus on the individual experiences of their protagonists. When I read The Hate U Give, I got lost in the chaos at the end. While Johnson and Segal describe the craziness of the riot, they keep the focus on Campbell and Lena’s experience of it, and only mention the parts that hinder their progress.

Structurally, the book is short and simple. I read it in about three hours (and I read slower than a teenager cleans their room). The plot moves at a good clip, and, again, the chief strength is the contrasting perspectives.

Needs Improvement

One thing that needed more development was the situation with Lena’s boyfriend. Many other characters expressed a lack of faith in him, and while he does some noble things toward the end, I didn’t feel the authors resolved the subplot. By the end, I couldn’t predict Lena’s next steps in her relationship. Would she stick with her boyfriend and prove to all the haters what a good guy he was, or would she dump him because he isn’t the guy she thought? His actions throughout the book left me with neutral feelings toward him.

Ends Well

While I don’t like the loose end of that subplot, I do appreciate that Lena and Campbell don’t magically become best friends. Both girls change their perspective of the world, but the book doesn’t end with a kumbaya moment.

Writing Style

In keeping with the short length and laser focus of the book, the prose was sparse. The authors included few descriptive details of the characters and often relied on their names (e.g. Big Baby) or dialogue to trigger the readers imagination. I would have liked more; I had trouble keeping Lena’s boyfriend’s  and cousin’s friends straight.

Brief Nit-picking

This is nitpicky, but I disagree with the authors’ choice to italicize the word ghetto. I think any modern American reader understands what that word means in the context of a race riot. To me, italicizing that word signals a foreign meaning and brings it back to its original context: Nazi Germany. Perhaps not all this book’s readers are also into WWII fiction as I am, but for me, italicizing the word was jarring.

Writing Style Highlight

Now that I’ve nit-picked, I want to highlight something the authors did well: the African American Vernacular English—AAE—in Lena’s dialogue and prose. For those who are unfamiliar, AAE is the dialect reporters refer to when they say Obama slips into “Black Speak.”

If Kimberly Jones isn’t a native speaker of this dialect, then she has certainly studied it. The habitual be, copula deletion, negation concord—it’s all there.

I know I’m falling into an all-out nerd-gush, but so often this dialect is reduced into a sprinkling of “Girl, please,” or butchered into a lawless mess. To see such a robust, grammatically accurate depiction makes my speech therapist’s heart all sorts of happy. Seriously, speech pathology graduate students should study Lena’s chapters. We’d have a lot fewer misdiagnoses.

I haven’t geeked out about a character’s dialogue this much since Thanhha Lai’s “Vietnamese in English.” I can’t overestimate how often authors get AAE wrong. Lena’s perspective was the highlight of the book for me.

Other

I love the cover. I think it succinctly communicates the theme.

Conclusion

This book ought to be required reading, and not just for speech pathology students. It’s short, fast-paced, and thought provoking without being accusatory. The contrast between the girls’ perspectives—including in the writing style—make for an engaging read. Fans of The Hate U Give will love it. To be honest, I liked this one better.


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Book Review: The Impossible Knife of Memory

For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

Cover Description

For the past five years, Hayley Kincaid and her father, Andy, have been on the road, never staying long in one place as he struggles to escape the demons that have tortured him since his return from Iraq. Now they are back in the town where he grew up so Hayley can attend school. Perhaps, for the first time, Hayley can have a normal life, put aside her own painful memories, even have a relationship with Finn, the hot guy who obviously likes her but is hiding secrets of his own. Will being back home help Andy’s PTSD, or will his terrible memories drag him to the edge of hell, and drugs push him over?” — Amazon Description *

Characters and Plot

As a Minnesota-nice, passive-aggressive people pleaser, I find it difficult to empathize with rebel protagonists. The love story subplot—bitter girl surrounds her heart with walls as thick as they are high; persistent nice guy breaks through them—is one I’ve seen before, most recently in A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi**.

However, Laurie Halse Anderson (LHA) creates empathy for Hayley more effectively than Mafi does for Shirin. While I initially found Hayley’s attitude off-putting, she and Finn were so “adorkable” I couldn’t help rooting for them.

As part of my graduate schooling, I had the privilege to train in the Minneapolis VA Hospital. The VA provided counseling for PTSD along with occupational, physical, and speech therapy. The experience gave me a profound respect for the men and women who serve our country, and a deeper understanding of the effects of that service on the body and the mind. If you would like to learn more, I recommend reading Once a Warrior—Always a Warrior by Charles Hoge.

LHA depicts PTSD with heart-wrenching realism. Hayley constantly evaluates her dad for signs of flashbacks. The story line dives into dark moments of violence, but pops up for a breath of hope often enough to make the reader cry out when it doesn’t last. Between the “adorkable” love story and the progressive intensity of the PTSD, the story is more than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded.

More than an emotional rollercoaster; it’s a race through a zero-gravity obstacle course at Warp 9, where the reader is the passenger and the pilot is blindfolded. #TheImpossibleKnifeofMemory

My only critique is that the author explains Hayley’s fear of water, but doesn’t divulge the history behind her hatred of the mall. One scene suggests she’s claustrophobic, but I would like to know more.

Writing Style

LHA’s writing style is the opposite of my own. I gravitate towards long sentences that flow across the page. Her prose is punchy and precise. No word joins the others without first proving its worth.

Her unique descriptions characterize her protagonist well. For example, she describes one of Hayley’s classmates as “the same size and shape as a porta potty.” The witty repartee between Hayley in Finn is what won me to Hayley’s side. It was as though they belonged to a linguistic genre all their own.

In short, LHA’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is masterful. She could write about people watching paint dry, and I would read 1,000 pages. @halseanderson

Conclusion

Given the subject, this book is not for readers who want to curl up on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and eat Christmas cookies. For those who seek a deeply emotional and inspiring experience, I highly recommend.

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**A Very Large Expanse of Sea is a good depiction of the fickleness of high school and the arbitrariness of popularity.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing

If you enjoy the music of a well-written metaphor, can pass hours lost in the world of a book, and stop to smell the roses while you read, I recommend this book.

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I read so much hype about this book. It popped up in multiple book blogs I follow, including the Spanish ones, where the book’s title is Niña Salvaje, “Wild Girl.” Needless to say, I was thrilled when my aunt gifted me a copy.

Back Cover Description

“For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl.

But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life—until the unthinkable happens.”

Characters

Kya’s perspective is engaging and endearing. Owns builds sympathy for her by describing her less-than-ideal home life. The story portrays her ascent to adulthood with such intimacy that the reader understands why she prefers nature to “civilization.”

Her two love interests, Tate and Chase, contrast each other nicely. I rather liked her relationship with Tate. Unlike a lot of love story subplots, they had common ground on which to base their relationship. Chase falls into the typical “star quarterback” stereotype, but Owens gets away with it by contrasting him with Tate. The other towns folk are exactly the sort of quirky one expects from a small town.

Plot

The story progresses in parallel timelines—one relating the murder-mystery, the other Kya’s coming-of-age. To me, the murder-mystery lacked the intense “who-done-it” factor that characterizes that genre, but the main point of the book was Kya’s life story. The murder-mystery served to highlight the town’s prejudice, Kya’s motives, and Kya’s development into a successful Marsh expert.

“Let me know what you think of the ending,” my grandmother said when she saw the book on my coffee table. She didn’t like it. It wasn’t quite the twist I expected, but to be honest, I have no strong feelings about it. The book would have been fine without it, but isn’t destroyed by its presence.

Writing Style

This is not the book to squeeze into the 5-minute breaks in your day. Where the Crawdads Sing is a story to be enjoyed while basking in the sunshine at the beach or while curled next to a fireplace, snowed in for the weekend. It took me a while to get into this story because I had just finished a heart-pounding WWII tale.

Owen’s prose is heavily descriptive, but not in a bad way. Her metaphors fit the setting and are so creative they resemble poetry. While the WWII tale shot words out like bullets from an automatic rifle, Owens words languish on the page, making the reader want to savor them before moving on.

I am glad I opted to read this book in English. I would have been lost in all that descriptive language had I read Niña Salvaje. I also think the cultural language of the Southern small town would be lost in translation.

One thing I noted was the author enjoyed describing Kya’s food and clothing in detail. Though they made me hungry, the food descriptions added detail to the setting. The descriptions of clothing helped show Kya aging (skirts fell first to her ankles, then her knees, etc), but struck me as odd.  

Aside from a couple instances of head-hopping mid-paragraph, Owens writing was a joy to read.

Miscellaneous

I wish the girl on the cover drove a shallow boat instead of paddling a canoe. One of the poems in the book mentions a girl in a canoe, but Kya’s boat and its appearance are more relevant to the plot.

Conclusion

If you enjoy the music of a well-written metaphor, can pass hours lost in the world of a book, and stop to smell the roses while you read, I recommend this book. Rather than the heart-pounding staccato of more thrilling tales, this book reads like a legato violin solo. A nice change of pace that I wouldn’t have regretted purchasing if I didn’t have generous family members.

Let me know what you think of the ending.


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Book Review: Butterfly Yellow

Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.

Butterfly Yellow by Thanhhà Lḁi

I’m a sucker for books that feature diverse protagonists, especially if the plot involves culture clash. When I saw this in the store, I couldn’t resist. It did not disappoint.

Cover Description

“In the final days of the Vietnam War, Hằng takes her little brother, Linh, to the airport, determined to find a way to America, a place of freedom and wonder. In a split second, Linh is ripped from her arms—and Hằng is left behind in a war-torn country.

Six years later, Hằng has made the harrowing journey as a refugee from Vietnam to Texas, a flat, endless expanse dotted with twisty mesquite trees and oil fields. She doesn’t know how she will find her little brother in this foreign land filled with people who speak hissy, snaky English. Then she meets LeeRoy, a city boy with big rodeo dreams.

Hằng is overjoyed when she and Linh are finally reunited. But her heart is crushed when she realizes that he doesn’t remember her, their family, or Vietnam. The distance between them feels greater than ever. But Hằng has come so far and will do anything to bridge the gap.”

Characters

Hằng is a spunky young woman whose determination brings her through the horrors of refugee life to her brother, a true role model for any age. Plagued by guilt, haunted by trauma, and filled with longing, her character garners immediate empathy without being piteous.

LeeRoy is a wannabe cowboy who always thinks of food. At first, his character came off as corny, but his small acts of heroism and kindness won me over by the end. The contrast between Hằng and LeeRoy provides a beautiful example of people reaching each other across cultures. So different, yet perfect friends. Her stubbornness and his cowboy grit collide in adorable spats. By the end, I loved them both.

Plot

Overall, the story was well-paced and kept me engaged throughout. I like that the book begins with Hằng finding her brother, and the story revolves around her difficulty in reconnecting with him. The challenges that arrive after escaping a war zone are an often untold part of the refugee story.

My one critique is that I waited the entire book to learn what happened to Hằng on the island, and the author dumped it all in a series of flashbacks. The story was worth the wait, but I wish she had sprinkled more of it in sooner. I like how LeeRoy supports her during that time, and I love that he never asks her to explain.

Writing Style

I love reading books by poets. I’ve read several by Diane Ackerman and love how descriptive she is. Lḁi’s prose is so full of imagery that reading it is like looking at a painting. Beautiful and imaginative, her descriptions reflect Hằng’s perspective. Reading from Hằng’s point of view makes Texas feel like an alien land, exactly how it seems to Hằng. LeeRoy’s perspective is much more down-to-earth, and I love that Lḁi includes so many forced westernisms for the wannabe cowboy.

The best part, for me, about Lḁi’s writing is her inclusion of Vietnamese and her use of English-in-Vietnamese spellings. Hằng’s dialogue and thoughts seem that much more real. Lḁi uses LeeRoy to “translate” in a way that naturally fits with the flow of the story, not forced. Everything is easy to understand, yet the writing itself adds to the sense of two cultures colliding. As a bilingual speech therapist, I could gush for pages about how much I loved this, but you get the idea.

Conclusion

Butterfly Yellow is a beautifully written and emotionally moving story of redemption and reconnection. I loved every word, and highly recommend it.


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Fates of Ruin

I read an early version of this book, and I eagerly awaited the release of this version so I could start hawking it to all my friends.

Fates of Ruin by Jo-Anne Tomlinson

I read an early version of this book, and I eagerly awaited the release of this version so I could start hawking it to all my friends. I’m also a huge fan of her space opera, which is linked below.

Amazon Description

“Jahna Mornglow is a thief and a liar, a half-breed of the ostracized Narcean race, born with the gift of fates. With no kindred to call her own, Jahna lives as an outcast, placing her faith in the dagger and the coin rather than family or the silent gods that have abandoned them.

But not all is what it seems. Her world is in danger and when the fates within her awaken, Jahna finds herself the banished heir of a kingdom close to ruin.

The land of Ardentia is vast and magical, carved by the Celestial gods and ruled by their mortal descendants. With a once great king mysteriously ill, a thousand-years’ war raging in the east and whispers of an ancient evil’s return, Ardentia’s salvation now rests on the shoulders of Jahna and her guild of young outsiders.

Enemies will be unmasked, secrets will be revealed and a fragmented artefact will breathe new life into the myths of old.

Spurred by vengeance and grief, does Jahna possess the resolve to keep safe a world that has shunned and discarded her?”

Characters

Tomlinson has a gift for crafting engaging, three-dimensional characters. The witty repartee between them is entertaining without feeling forced. Many modern movies comprise one long action scene with a few lines of awkward comic relief. While this book’s plot is filled with action, the characters’ interaction is so genuine you come to view them as your new best friends. Furthermore, Tomlinson goes beyond the usual orcs and elves to create unique races and creatures.

Jahna, Lilac, and Silko are three misfits disappointed with their lack of progress toward their dreams. As a millennial who too-recently went through the “quarter-life crisis,” I could relate. Jahna’s unknown past comes crashing into the present, launching her and her friends on a quest to claim revenge, and maybe save the kingdom in the process.

Jahna

Jahna struggles with her biracial identity as her unfamiliar Narcean heritage continues to surface along the journey. She is a strong female lead, but vulnerable enough to gain sympathy.

Lilac

I love Lilac because she subverts a trope I would like to see extinct: the sexy ninja trope. You know, the 90-pound supermodel in tight leather and heels who takes down six marines and whose hair—which she didn’t even bother to put into a ponytail—looks like she just walked out of a salon rather than a fist fight.

Lilac, however, is a muscular brute of a woman described such that I totally believe she can rip a man in half with her bare hands. She sweats, belches, and gets covered in mud. She keeps her hair pulled back in braids and wears practical footwear. I adore her.

Silko

In the earlier version of this book, Silko fell into another trope I despise: the wussy academic. We’ve all seen the four-eyed geeks who have to take a puff from their inhalers before squeaking out a line of comic relief. Being married to an engineer, I like to point out that statistically , people with a high IQ are in better physical condition than those with a lower IQ.

Fortunately, as the author aged up her characters, Silko gained more of a backbone. He is still a physical weakling—a nice contrast to Lilac, and a logical result of his obsession with books—but he speaks his mind more and uses his intelligence as the weapon it is. This first book in the series suggests a strong growth arc for him, so I’m okay with him starting out as a coward. This type of physically weak smart guy, I can handle-one with potential for growth and whose role in the plot goes beyond comic relief.

Plot

This plot well paced for the modern attention span. It is not for readers who enjoy stopping and smelling the roses. Tolkien fans will not find pages of poetry, invented languages, or interminable stretches of historic backstory. It starts with action and continues to hop from predicaments to predicament as the protagonists push toward their goal.

Beyond the usual “ambushed by bad guys and have to fight their way out,” the protagonists face interesting challenges that require them to rely on each other’s unique strengths to overcome.

Writing Style

As I mentioned before, Tomlinson has a gift for character creation, particularly with dialogue. She provides enough description and backstory for the reader to immerse themselves in the story world without bogging down the pacing. I’m not a fan of cliff-hanger endings, but as I know I’ll buy the next book anyway, I’m okay with this one.

Miscellaneous

I like the new cover design, but I don’t think the title was emphasized enough throughout the story. Perhaps the next book in the series will make it more clear.

Conclusion

If you seek an escape into an exciting world with interesting people, look no further. The Fates of Ruin is an engaging read that will have you thinking about its characters even as you make your morning coffee run.


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Book Review: The Hate U Give

This book popped up repeatedly on bestseller and recommendation lists. I had to discover the basis for the hype.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

This book popped up repeatedly on bestseller and recommendation lists. I had to discover the basis for the hype.

Back Cover Description

“Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does—or does not—say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.”

Characters

Starr is a relatable teenager in that she is still figuring out who she is and where she belongs. While not everybody has lived between two different socioeconomic classes, most people have felt they didn’t belong. I like that the author didn’t put Starr in a single box; instead, she showed us many aspects of Starr’s personality. It was as if Starr says “This is me too. Why should I have to choose?”

The other characters were unique without be cartoonish. I particularly liked Seven’s mother’s small act of redemption toward the end.

Plot

I usually read at a glacial pace, stopping to savor the story as it unfolds, but this book’s pacing is like a galloping horse—steady and strong. Thomas strikes the perfect balance between increasing tension and allowing enough time for development and emotional resonance. The focus on Starr, her family, her choices, and her reactions kept me engaged until the end when everything devolved into a riot. I couldn’t relate to a crowd of angry people and had trouble suspending my disbelief after that. A bit too crazy for a passive-aggressive, people-pleasing Midwesterner like me.

I appreciate the author’s explaining the rap that made the story’s the theme. As a classical music fan, I would have been lost without that.

Writing Style

The strength of Thomas’s writing lies in her delving into ambiguity and forcing the reader to sit there, uncomfortable. She portrays life for the complex, messy thing it is, and I admire her for that. Few books have characters as flawed but human as hers.

One masterfully written scene was when Starr’s family got together to watch the basketball game. Rivalries reared their ugly heads, and each person had their own win-ensuring rituals. I don’t give a rat’s left toe about basketball, but if you replace the sport with hockey and the family with a bunch of sun-starved Minnesotans, this scene could have come straight from my childhood. What family can’t relate to friendly competition?

Pairing such a relatable family event with something so tragic, so wrong, made for a powerful read. This wasn’t my favorite book I’ve ever read, but it was worth reading for that scene alone.

Conclusion

The Hate U Give speaks to a relevant issue in modern American culture and opens the door for discussion. Thomas’s prose didn’t make me swoon like say, Laurie Halse Anderson’s or Diane Ackerman’s, but it was solid, and many of her scenes packed an emotional punch.

Worth the hype?

I didn’t find this book as earth-shattering as other reviewers, but I enjoyed it, and I admit it made me think.

Worth the money/time to read?

Yes. I checked a copy out from the library, but purchasing it wouldn’t be a waste. It makes a good discussion book, so it’d be good to loan to a friend.


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Book Review: Speak

The publisher recently released the 20-year anniversary version of this story. I am far behind the boat on this, as it is my first time reading it. That’s what I love about words: they’re timeless. Twenty years later, I can discover a book and immerse myself in its pages.

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The publisher recently released the 20-year anniversary version of this story. I am far behind the boat on this, as it is my first time reading it. That’s what I love about words: they’re timeless. Twenty years later, I can discover a book and immerse myself in its pages.

Cover Description

“From the first moment of her freshman year at Merryweather High, Melinda knows this is a big fat lie, part of the nonsense of high school. She is friendless, outcast, because she busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops, so now nobody will talk to her, let alone listen to her. As time passes, she becomes increasingly isolated and practically stops talking altogether.

Only her art class offers any solace, and it is through her work on an art project that she is finally able to face what really happened at that terrible party: she was raped by an upperclassman, a guy who still attends Merryweather and is still a threat to her. Her healing process has just begun when she has another violent encounter with him. But this time Melinda fights back, refuses to be silent, and thereby achieves a measure of vindication.”

Characters

Melinda sees the world through the cynical eyes of someone it has treated unjustly. Her personality has a sharp edge to it, but not the edge of someone who is belligerent by nature. The bitter irony in her perspective is a defensive reaction to the pain acidifying her insides. Only Heather, a new student who is desperate to climb the social hierarchy, speaks to her.

You can tell a lot about a person by how they react to pain. Melinda holds hers inside, bearing her trauma in silence. Heather wails and shouts her troubles like a wolf howling at a full moon. The contrast between them adds power to the theme of the book.

Plot

The strength of this story is its subtlety. This is not a political manifesto, a b*tch party at the bar, or a transcript of a therapy session. The story focuses on Melinda as a person, her individual experience, and her processing what happened to her. It does not claim to represent all rape victims, nor does it strive to make vast cultural changes. This is about one girl learning to speak up for herself. Because of that, it is even more powerful.

Writing Style

This was the author’s debut novel, and her writing is flawless. When you begin with flawless and improve from there, you know you’re a good writer. I can attest to that, because, while this book was well written, the writing in her later publications left me in awe.

Other

As you can see in the Amazon link below, the 20th anniversary edition has a different cover than the copy I checked out of the library. I like them both.

This book often appears in discussions about censorship and what topics ought to be permitted in public schools. Personally, I don’t see any reason this shouldn’t have a place on school library shelves. The descriptions were not so graphic as to be unreadable, and the subject is relevant to teenagers. The book itself is short enough not to take up an entire semester should teachers make it required reading, and I recommend they do. I got more from Speak than I did from most of the stuff teachers forced me to read in high school.

Conclusion

This book is well-worth reading. I read it in two sittings, but it is short enough to read in a day if you’re so inclined. I went to the library, but I would say it is not only worth buying, it would be worth buying two to have one to give to a friend.


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Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson


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