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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Character Profile: Tony

Here is the last character profile from my upcoming book Out of Ashes.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

If Gus is a long-simmering volcano, and Minh a crack of a whip, Tony Giovanni is a fireworks finale. When angered, his jaw clenches, his round head reddens like a ripe tomato, and his bulging muscles threaten to tear through the T-shirt stretched over his stocky frame. Just as a firework explodes with fury and dissipates in an instant, Tony is as quick to forgive and forget as he is to get angry.

A third-generation Italian who lives amidst a swarm of siblings and cousins, Tony fixes anything with moving parts using nothing but a “good old-fashioned Leatherman.” When he’s not threatening to punch Gus’s face in, “Love Doctor Tony” pounds him with his patented dating rules. Some may call him simple, but Tony couldn’t care less what other people think. He moseys through life with a tender heart, a crooked smile, and a clenched fist.

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Character Profile: Gus

My novel, Out of Ashes, comes out August 4th 2020. Here is a look at Gus, the disgruntled genius.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

Despite what his Germanic name suggests, Gustaf Hein hails from the UK. The son of parents with multiple doctorates each, he was top of his class at an exclusive boarding school until his parents’ scandal at Oxford launched them across the pond. Accustomed to debating the finer points of astrophysics with his peers, Gus now walks the halls with guys who say “dude” and make fart jokes.

Girls may swoon at the sight of tall-blonde-and-handsome’s deep blue eyes, but as soon as he opens his mouth, they scatter like a flock of birds after a gunshot. His tone spews exasperation, and no one understands a word of his prodigious vocabulary. No one except Cathryn. Despite her quirks, Cathryn translates what he says with the naturalness of a bilingual.

To a guy whose expression alternates between a derisive sneer and a disgruntled scowl, Cathryn’s kindness is as foreign as driving on the right side of the road. His stoicism masks a simmering temper, but he doesn’t waste time believing in love.

Then again, Cathryn’s smile is evidence for a lot of things he doesn’t believe.

Click here to learn more about my book Out of Ashes

Character Profile: Cathryn

If you haven’t heard, my debut novel, Out of Ashes, will be out August 4th 2020. Here is a look at my main character.

My lovely friend Leah Belcher traded me this sketch for a loaf of homemade bread!

Cathryn Banks has mastered the art of hiding in plain sight by leveraging her thin frame to slip beneath people’s scrutiny. A “human encyclopedia,” Cathryn collects historical quotes the way a small boy collects baseball cards. When her teachers ask her a direct question, she fiddles with the end of her dust-colored ponytail and whispers the correct answer. At first glance, Cathryn Banks does not seem “heroic” enough to be a heroine, but first glances aren’t known for their accuracy.

When faced with an impossible choice, Cathryn does not hesitate to make sacrifices for those she loves. As her world darkens, she perseveres one day, one step, one breath at a time. Cathryn Banks may not seem heroic, but her quiet strength defies first glances.

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 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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Book Review: A Very Large Expanse of Sea

I picked up this book because I love reading about people who are different from me. Not a lot of young adult novels feature Muslim protagonists, so I grabbed this as soon as I saw it available the library.

A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi

I picked up this book because I love reading about people who are different from me. Not a lot of young adult novels feature Muslim protagonists, so I grabbed this as soon as I saw it available the library.

Back Cover Description

“It’s 2002, a year after 9/11. It’s an extremely turbulent time politically, but especially so for someone like Shirin, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl who’s tired of being stereotyped.

Shirin is never surprised by how horrible people can be. She’s tired of the rude stares, the degrading comments—even the physical violence—she endures as a result of her race, her religion, and the hijab she wears every day. So she’s built up protective walls and refuses to let anyone close enough to hurt her. Instead, she drowns her frustrations in music and spends her afternoons break-dancing with her brother.

But then she meets Ocean James. He’s the first person in forever who really seems to want to get to know Shirin. It terrifies her—they seem to come from two irreconcilable worlds—and Shirin has had her guard up for so long that she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to let it down.”

Characters

I love that Shirin breaks so many stereotypes. She’s a fashionista and break-dancer. I appreciate the author’s describing the break dance moves for a neophyte like me. I also liked that the author portrayed a varying level of piety. One of my favorite passages was when Shirin’s mother asks her and her brother if they said their prayers, and they lie and say they did. The mom rolls her eyes and says to do better with their afternoon prayers, and they lie and say they will. That’s an exchange a lot of young people can relate to.

If I had met Shirin in real life, her “back off” vibes would have scared me away long before I got to know the wounded heart inside her. Shirin is so disillusioned and bitter she is difficult to like. I have trouble immersing myself in that much anger.

The author mentions Shirin writing in her diary a lot. I wish she had included some of those entries in the book to show her softer, vulnerable side. Without that, getting to know Shirin is like singing Christmas carols to the Wicked Witch of the West. We see more of her inner self later in the book, but I almost didn’t make it that far.

Plot

The tough girl falling for a sweet guy is a common theme in young adult literature, but I always have trouble believing the guys are that persistent. Perhaps that comes from being an invisible wallflower in high school. Mafi gets away with it by making Shirin beautiful and stylish and orchestrating the circumstances such that the leading male finds her lack of interest in basketball refreshing. Still, as far as this trope goes, I much preferred Laurie Halse Anderson’s The Impossible Knife of Memory.

The plot’s main asset is an excellent portrayal of the arbitrariness of popularity. I won’t spoil it by including details, but it exposes the hypocrisy of high school (and adult) social circles. Much like real life, the characters transition from social lepers to reigning sovereigns with the speed of a viral video.

Writing Style

The author’s tone was consistent with the protagonist’s voice—short sentences and curt language. Not a style I gravitate to, but well-executed and fitting for the story. The plot moved at an acceptable pace, and I got a decent sense the setting. As Shirin often moved from school to school, I felt it appropriate that the setting didn’t receive too much attention. After so many moves, she wouldn’t care enough to invest in making it home.

Other

The cover image is hard to read, and it doesn’t reveal the premise of the book. I first discovered this book on a recommendations list, so I already knew what it was about, but a browsing reader wouldn’t.

Conclusion

If you are into tough-girl protagonists, or if you have a similar life experience to the main character, then this book is well-written enough to warrant spending money. For shy girls like me who have trouble relating to that type of character, it’s a library read. Either way, worth reading.


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