Shadows in the Water

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—no matter who gets hurt.

Shadows in the Water by Jo-Anne Tomlinson

I don’t normally read a ton of suspense, but after beta reading more of it recently, I’m developing a taste for it. This is my favorite of the ones I’ve read.

Description

Someone tried to murder India Peters, but that’s not even the biggest news in the beachside community of Army Bay. Brandy Hamilton, desired and despised queen bee, disappeared the same night.


When India wakes up, her memories are missing along with her childhood-friend-turned-hated-nemesis. Somewhere in her foggy brain lies the answer to how India went from social pariah to member of Brandy’s elite circle: Brandy’s sister Sadie, the good twin. Rory, the track star. Ben, the hot boyfriend. Avery, the rich douche. Elton, the cocky loner.


But things in Army Bay are only getting stranger. Her parents, her frenemies, the girl she likes, even the police—they all know more than they’re willing to share. To uncover the truth, India will have to expose the town’s dark secrets no matter who gets hurt.

Characters

Biracial and bisexual India Peters is a cynical teen who learned the hard way that high school can be hell, but she wakes up to discover she’d become someone else. A popular someone who cares about things like free-range chickens. India’s investigation into the past helps her define her present—which India is she? The pariah and stoner or the popular progressive?

Her quest for the truth leads her to interact with the town’s characters. Each person has plenty of motive to harm Brandy, but not everyone is what India expected. The large cast kept me guessing throughout the story, but each character is so unique and well-rounded that I didn’t struggle to keep them straight as I have in similar books.

Plot

With every clue India uncovers come at least a dozen more questions. The more she uncovers about the towns people and their competing motives, the more dangerous her investigation becomes. Even the police are suspect. The plot twists and turns as it careens toward the finish at a pace fast enough to give the reader whiplash, but not so fast as to neglect character development and tension building.

Writing Style

With sharp wit, sarcasm, and an unapologetic use of the f-word, Tomlinson captures an edgy teen voice that fits perfectly with the tension in the story. The prose is clear with creative descriptions that set the tone, a pleasure to read.

Conclusion

Filled with intrigue driven by heart-pounding suspense, Shadows in the Water weaves a net of competing motives. Cynical India navigates a town full of hypocrites, determined to discover the truth—even when her investigation leads her way too close to home. With a large cast of shady characters and enough twists to keep the reader guessing, Shadows in the Water is an excellent addition to teen suspense. I couldn’t put it down.


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Book Review: Home Front

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set, but I still feel its themes are relevant today.

Home Front by Kristin Hannah

I read this book eight years after it was published and fifteen years after it was set. For me, the most interesting part was reflecting on how much has changed in American culture since then.

Cover Description

“Like many couples, Michael and Jolene Zarkades have to face the pressures of everyday life—children, careers, bills, chores—even as their twelve-year marriage is falling apart. Then an unexpected deployment sends Jolene deep into harm’s way and leaves defense attorney Michael at home, unaccustomed to being a single parent to their two girls. As a mother, it agonizes Jolene to leave her family, but as a soldier she has always understood the true meaning of duty. In her letters home, she paints a rose-colored version of her life on the front lines, shielding her family from the truth. But war will change Jolene in ways that none of them could have foreseen. When tragedy strikes, Michael must face his darkest fear and fight a batter of his own—for everything that matters to his family.”

Characters

So many books aim for a “strong female lead” by putting breasts on a masculine character, but Jolene has a refreshingly feminine strength. As a mother, her number one priority is her daughters. She takes on a great emotional toll to spare them pain, and she sacrifices her personal preferences to keep the family running. She is strong, yet vulnerable, feeling intense emotions even as she perseveres through her trials. Jolene is three-dimensional, a shining example resilience.

Including Michael’s perspective prevents the reader from picking sides in their marital disputes. He is flawed, and his struggle with being Mr. Mom resonates with anyone who has ever worked with children. My one critique is that by the end of the book, he seemed too perfect. I have serious doubts that a man would be so persistent given Jolene’s repeated refusal of reconciliation.

Would I have said that had I read the book in 2012 when it was published? Has my opinion of people declined so much? I’m not sure. It seems to me the more “connected” we are through technology, the shorter our attention spans, and the less effort we are willing to put into our relationships. Jolene and Michael’s marriage is an example of love as a choice, of the extensive hard work needed to last until death do us part. Call me a cynic, but I don’t see that kind of love very often in times where a minor disagreement will lead to “unfriending.” Reading this book makes be think we could all use a dose of the past.

Plot

The story falls into two parts: Jolene’s deployment and her adjustment to coming home. Interspersed are Michael’s struggles as a functionally single parent. The central conflict is Jolene being deployed to Iraq, and Michael’s lack of support for her. For me, it was interesting to reflect on what dominated the headlines back then compared fills our screens now.

Overall, the plot is well-paced, somewhat predictable, but that isn’t a bad thing in a character-driven novel. I enjoyed watching Jolene and Michael grow as individuals and as a couple.

Writing Style

Hannah’s descriptions are evocative without being too high-brow. She has a talent for showing the passage of time via small things—flowers blooming, weather patterns, characters growing accustomed to their new surroundings. Her prose is clear and easy to read without lacking substance.

Miscellaneous

I read this book long after it was published, but I still found it relevant. The themes of reconciliation, supporting your spouse despite disagreements, love as a choice, and coming home both mentally and physically are as pertinent today as they were in 2012.

The story draws attention to mental health in a relatable way that is both encouraging and discouraging. Encouraging because we have made great strides in PTSD research and management since this book was set. Discouraging because so much stigma still surrounds mental health, even though increased isolation and false-faced social media have led to an even greater need to destroy that stigma.

Conclusion

As usual, you can’t go wrong with a book by Kristin Hannah. With her characteristic clear and beautiful writing style, Hannah explores the intimate landscape of human relationships. The themes of this moving story continue to speak to the heart.



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Anxious People

The last page arrives far too soon. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

Honestly, you should skip this review and buy the book, but in case you need a little encouragement first, read on.

Cover Description

“Looking at real estate isn’t usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can’t fix up their own marriage. There’s a wealthy banker who has been too busy making money to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can’t seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-read-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment’s only bathroom, and you’ve got the worst group of hostages in the world.

“Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them—the bank robber included—desperately crave some sort of rescue.”

Characters

As usual, Bachman’s characters are the perfect blend of quirky and deep. With wry humor, he captures humanity in all its messiness. I love that he doesn’t write about single characters, but entire communities. Each person has their own odd behaviors that are only understood when they reveal who they truly are. Each person impacts the person next to them. These characters don’t jump off the page, they tear the pages right from the binding. Peculiar as they are, everyone can say they know someone like them.

Plot

The plot alternates timelines and perspectives to reveal both the police investigation and the hostage’s situation. He weaves various small threads into a complete narrative, with every minor detail having a significant impact and no loose threads left at the end. The mystery of what happened to the bank robber is compelling, but the characters themselves are so entertaining, I would have finished this book even if the plot were a bunch of strangers watching paint dry.

Writing Style

Fredrik Backman is one of my favorite authors. Clichés flee the room when he enters it. His descriptions are unique and on-point. I’m not ashamed to admit that I paused my reading several times just to admire a sentence or phrase. He effortlessly captures the deep hurts people carry, the small ways they show their feelings even when they can’t say, “I love you” out loud. Every quirk has a reason, and even the vainest of characters is more than superficial.

Conclusion

I rarely review Fredrik Backman’s books because he is one of those authors whose books I will read without even scanning the description first. The last page arrives far too soon. His work has an addictive quality that leaves a lasting emotional impression. Anxious People is a fine addition to the rest of his collection.

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Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

This one has languished on my to-read list for too long, so I was thrilled when the library had a copy available. I can see why this debut novel received so much attention, and why it is soon to be a motion picture.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

This one languished on my to-read list for too long, so I was thrilled when the library had a copy available.

Cover Description

No one’s ever told Eleanor that life should be better than fine.


“Meet Eleanor Oliphant: She struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. Nothing is missing in her carefully timetabled life of avoiding social interactions, where weekends are punctuated by frozen pizza, vodka, and phone chats with Mummy.


“But everything changes when Eleanor meets Raymond, the bumbling and deeply unhygienic IT guy from her office. When she and Raymond together save Sammy, an elderly gentleman who has fallen on the sidewalk, the three become the kinds of friends who rescue one another from the lives of isolation they have each been living. And it is Raymond’s big heart that will ultimately help Eleanor find the way to repair her own profoundly damaged one.”

Character

Eleanor Oliphant is a social sore thumb reminiscent of Ove in one of my favorite novels, A Man Called Ove. Honeyman brings her protagonist’s voice to life vividly, and she doesn’t shy away from poking fun at the conventions we consider “normal.” Spending time with Eleanor and her new misfit friends is delightful, a refreshing look at friendship.

Eleanor’s backstory is much darker than the description implies, but it adds to Eleanor’s humanity and leaves her with plenty of room to grow.

Plot

The plot follows Eleanor as she becomes infatuated with a musician she’s never met and tries to change herself so he will fall in love with her. Along the way, she and Raymond save an elderly man’s life, and Eleanor finds herself straddling two new worlds: the musician’s—which she longs to enter—and Raymond’s, into which she is thrust unawares. Having spent most of her life lonely, the choice is overwhelming. Along the way, she learns about herself, her past, and her capacity for friendship.

Overall, the plot moves at a glacial pace with the author sprinkling tidbits of Eleanor’s backstory throughout mundane scenes—most often, a lunch date. If you are the type of reader who needs quick-paced action sequences, this book is not for you, but I enjoyed Eleanor’s lengthy descriptions of her surroundings and circumstances. The joy of reading this story is being immersed in Eleanor’s unique perspective.

Writing Style

Honeyman’s great strength is capturing Eleanor’s quirks on the page and immersing the reader in her perspective. The prose overflowed with details and sophisticated vocabulary, and was a little superior in tone, just like Eleanor. The description is so thorough that I didn’t care about the plot. I just enjoyed experiencing the world through Eleanor’s eyes.

Theme

In contemporary fiction, I enjoy books with strong themes, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine did not disappoint. Themes of loneliness, friendship, and healing from past trauma permeated the prose. I like that the author thought to include these struggles in a relatively young protagonist—Eleanor is only thirty—and that none of her coworkers suspected. We often think of the elderly when we discuss loneliness, but even in the age of social media—and sometimes because of it—young people also experience a dearth of human contact and affection. Eleanor’s story shines a non-judgmental light on mental illness and provides a hopeful portrayal of treatment.

Conclusion

I can see why this debut novel received so much attention, and why it is soon to be a motion picture. Eleanor’s quirky personality colliding with Raymond’s gentle nature provides everything necessary for an entertaining story. Their unconventional friendship demonstrates the power of simple kindness and gives hope for a world in which loneliness is a bigger problem than ever.

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Book Review: The Alice Network

Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

At my last visit to the library of Grandma, I mentioned I never tire of WWII books. She came over the next day and handed me a stack of them, including this one.

Back Cover Description

“1947. In the chaotic aftermath of WWII, American college girl Charlie St. Clair is pregnant, unmarried, and on the verge of being thrown out of her very proper family. She’s also nursing a desperate hope that her beloved cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the war, might still be alive. So when Charlie’s parents banish her to Europe to have her “little problem” taken care of, Charlie breaks free and head to London, determined to find out what happened to the cousin she loves like a sister.

1915. A year into the Great War, Eve Gardiner burns to join the fight against the Germans and unexpectedly gets her chance when she’s recruited to work as a spy. Sent into enemy-occupied France, she’s trained by the mesmerizing Lili, code name Alice, the “queen of spies,” who manages a vast network of secret agents right under the enemy’s nose.

Thirty years later, haunted by the betrayal that ultimately tore apart the Alice Network, Eve spends her days drunk and secluded in her crumbling London house. That is until a young American barges in uttering a name Eve hasn’t heard in decades, and launches them both on a mission to find the truth… no matter where it leads.”

Characters

I loved both the main characters. As an unwed, pregnant woman in 40s, Charlie faces significant challenges. She has a head for numbers, not the surrounding men believe her. She approaches life like a math problem, always trying to solve for x, but she soon discovers that life is not so straightforward. Through the course of the story, she grows from an uncertain disappointment to her parents into a confident young woman with plans of her own.

Eve also breaks many stereotypes. As a speech therapist, I appreciate the author’s accurate representation of stuttering. I love how Eve turns her stammer into an asset and takes advantage of people’s assumption that she is simple. Eve reminds us all that behind every cranky old neighbor lady is a story we could never imagine. In a culture where we often dismiss our elders in favor of youth-worship, Eve’s determination and courage are an inspiration.

Plot

Her entire family assumes Rose is another war tragedy, but Charlie recruits Eve to continue the search. In an alternate timeline, Eve works as a spy during WWI. As they continue searching for Charlie’s lost cousin, their stories intertwine.

Upon reading the supplemental information in the back, I was surprised to learn just how much of the story was factual. Quinn weaves her characters seamlessly into history, so much so the story feels like fan-fiction of the truth. I knew nothing about The Alice Network, but after reading this book, I’d love to read a biography on “The Queen of Spies.”

Writing Style

The story alternates between Charlie and Eve’s perspectives and timelines. Charlie tells her tale in the first person, while Eve’s narrative is third-person. An odd difference, but not inhibitive. The suspense left between shifting perspectives could have been more intense; it took a while for the story to hook me.

Miscellaneous

I love the cover, especially since the car plays such a huge role in the plot. My grandmother’s paper has pages that alternate in width, giving it an old-school touch. At first, I enjoyed the novelty, but I soon came to hate it. The inconsistent page size makes it impossible to page through to see how many pages remain in a chapter.

Conclusion

This book smashes stereotypes and highlights the oft-ignored role of women during the two world wars. The protagonists are loveable yet flawed. While the story took some time to build suspense, it left me wanting to learn more. I recommend this book to fans of WWII fiction and to anyone wanting an engaging way to learn more about women’s role in the wars.  


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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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The Impossible Knife of Memory


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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.