Book Review: An Abundance of John Green

I’ll start by saying I did not just recently discover John Green. I’d known about him since his guest appearances on PotterCast (going back to around 2008? 2009?), the NerdFighters, and The Fault in Our Stars, which I read and reviewed in 2013. I’d just never kept up with his other works. 

I’m not exactly sure what made me pick up Turtles All the Way Down last month. I think maybe I was just in the mood for something somber (read: not another cutesy urban fantasy romance). Once I’d finished the book, I wanted more. Not necessarily more of those particular characters or of that particular story, but just more of John Green. His voice.

So, I started reading Paper Towns. I ended up staying up all night to finish Paper Towns. I HAD to see what would happen next. While the ending was a little anticlimactic, I just loved how Green took the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, chased it all the way into a corner, and then busted it. The book said something. And that voice…I cannot get over the voice of his writing, the quirky, random, poetic voices of his characters. 

Next, I read Looking For Alaska, his first published work. It’s basically the same story as Paper Towns, but with a grimmer outcome for our MPDG, one that never gives her a chance to rise above her trope. There’s almost something Poe-esque in Green’s romances, how the protagonist would rather love his Dream Girl from a distance, in love with his romantic idealizing of her more than he is actually capable of loving her as a real person. In all 3 cases — from Turtles to Towns to Alaska — the mystery driving the stories, coupled with the captivating narration, kept me turning the pages. 

Finally, I concluded my Green binge with Will Grayson, Will Grayson, co-authored by David Levithan. This was a slower read for me, as it was more character-driven without the same sense of dread or mystery evoked by the other 3 books. I don’t know if it was Levithan’s touch that made this book different, but it dragged quite a bit, and the ending…well, I just don’t know about that ending. The story ended up being about someone who is distinctly not one of the Will Graysons. I will say, I admired how the chapters alternated between each Will’s POV and how different they were, so that you never got confused between them. Also, the deep examination of depression, anxiety, and mental health that most if not all of Green’s books include was present in this title, as well. 

Are John Green’s books pretentious? Are all of the characters – from the precocious yet socially awkward MC, his/her quirky love interest, to the obscenely energetic, verbose best friend – copied from the same exact formula? Do his teen characters talk like no actual teenagers talk? Yes, yes, and yes. Did any of that make me love these books any less? Heck no.

John Green has been elevated to my favorite author status. I even ordered print copies of Paper Towns & Alaska for my shelf, because they’re both brilliant and deserve to be gawked at daily from my desk. At this point, I plan to read anything he publishes in the future…so long as it’s written in first-person and is fiction. 😉 

Book Review: The Twin by Natasha Preston

*This review contains some mild, non-specific spoilers.

The Twin by Natasha Preston is a dark teen novel published in March 2020. My local Barnes & Noble in Shelby Twp, Michigan had signed copies sitting out on a table in the YA section, and the opening pages intrigued me, so I purchased it. With the creepy-twin trope, I thought I was getting a Similars/Pretenders type of deal, maybe with a touch of Without Curtains, because the cool, easy writing style reminded me of Holly M. Campbell. But readers should beware: This story does NOT end happily for our heroine.

Now, I’m all about not spoiling, but I do think readers should know what genre they’re reading — especially if, like in my case, they think they’ll be reading one type of book when it’s not that. Admittedly, I was expecting a run-of-the-mill YA suspense/thriller, in which the heroine must solve the puzzle, then put in the fight of her life to emerge victorious. The Twin is not that story. It’s a horror tragedy. So, respecting it for the genre it is, I’m not going to complain about the ending. I’m just defining the genre so that readers know what to expect.

The Twin is the haunting tale of Ivy and Iris, two estranged, sixteen-year-old twin sisters. In a Parent Trap type of way, Mom took one twin and Dad took the other when they divorced. Now, they’re brought back together upon the mysterious death of their mother. Right off, Mom’s death sounds sketchy and I suspected foul play. Ivy, the narrator, is trying to adjust to the death of her mother, and to her twin sister moving in with her and their dad. She otherwise had a good life going for her: straight-A student, fastest swimmer on the team, a great boyfriend who plays football, a tight-knit trio of BFFs. The only issues Ivy suffers from is general anxiety and overthinking, traits I found to be very relatable and refreshing.

Meanwhile, her twin, Iris, is clearly a sociopath. It’s obvious from the get-go in her behavior that she isn’t even mourning their mom, but Ivy keeps trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. “Everyone grieves differently,” as they say. But then Iris starts to cross boundaries to make Ivy’s life a living hell. One by one, Iris subtly manipulates Ivy’s friends, teachers, and father against Ivy. When Ivy begins to realize what’s happening, it’s too late because Iris keeps gaslighting her and causing everyone else to question Ivy’s sanity.

The story is overall a chilling, addicting, and well-written read. My only quibble with the writing itself is that the characters say they’re American, but the editor forgot to change out some of the author’ British English. (E.g. I caught many instances of “footpath” instead of sidewalk, referring to a public restroom as “the toilet,” phrasing such as “on the phone to” instead of “on the phone with,” and other details that didn’t sound authentic coming from a supposedly American narrator.) I also think the book could’ve stood to have an actual, defined setting — the author never names where the story takes place, just says ‘the country’ and ‘the city’ — and that, too, took me out of the narrative, because a well-researched setting should be like another character in the book. It just seemed like a missed opportunity to add a layer of atmosphere, make the story feel more real to the reader, and set the tone overall. These may be aspects, however, that only a writer would notice or mind.

For anyone who enjoys teen YA blended with a solid, unraveling suspense and doesn’t mind dark outcomes, The Twin is an intriguing page-turner for a lazy afternoon. I would read more by this author.

DNF: Pure by Catherine Mesick

Pure by Catherine Mesick is a 2014 indie-published YA urban fantasy novel. It is Book 1 of the Pure Series by Catherine Mesick. I think I found it on BookBub and was drawn by the absolutely gorgeous cover art. Also, it was free, so that didn’t hurt! I found the opening chapters intriguing with the unique YA UF twist on Russian mythology, and I liked Katie in general as a character.

I want to start out by saying that I have tremendous respect for Mesick. Not just for finishing a series of this genre, but executing it all correctly as an indie author (no easy feat) and deciding to make the first book in her series free to initiate readers at no risk. I think that’s a brilliant strategy and I commend her for it. I also think we share the same hometown (or at least, home state) but that’s beside the point. I would love to meet her at a book conference someday and shake her hand. (Post-covid era, of course.)

I read 50% of Pure. It was an overall positive experience. I am setting it aside for the time being at the 50% mark. The writing is good and the story holds a lot of promise. My issue is mostly just pacing. This is something I struggle with personally when I get to the ‘muddy middle’ of lots of books, so it’s not necessarily a criticism of the author. That said, the author chose to answer some pressing questions prematurely (what is William, where his & Katie’s relationship is going, what is the monster, what/who is killing people in town and why) that I feel would’ve been better saved for much later in the book. I was reading to unravel these mysteries. Once all my questions were answered around midway through, I no longer felt incentivized to keep reading.

Lastly, I’m not sure if it’s a literary style or just an editing oversight, but the text contains an exorbitant amount of em-dashes that were distracting and should typically be used very sparingly.

All that aside, I certainly wouldn’t discourage anyone from downloading a free book, especially if they’re fans of this genre. I may decide someday to finish the book (or even the series) and go back and update this review. For now, however, I have other books on my TBR to move onto, including some library books I don’t want falling overdue. Thank you to the author for allowing us to sample her work!

Book Review: A Thousand Questions by Saadia Faruqi

Ah, these characters are going to stay with me for a while, I know it. A Thousand Questions (HarperCollins, October 2020) by Saadia Faruqi is one of those books where I so wished I could spend more time with the characters after the pages ran out.

Mimi and Sakina are two seemingly very different eleven-year-old girls. Mimi is from Houston, Texas and is lively, sassy, carefree, and a big fan of T-shirts with sarcastic or funny sayings printed on them. Sakina lives in Karachi, Pakistan and assists her father as a cook for a wealthy Pakistani family. Sakina has many worries, from her family’s poverty to her father’s health problems, and the fact that she wishes she could attend school instead of working.

When Mimi’s mom takes her to meet her grandparents in Karachi for the first time, Mimi doesn’t think she can get used to the heat, the spicy food, or the fact that Pakistani people don’t seem to share her sense of humor. Then Mimi befriends her grandmother’s hired girl, Sakina, and that begins to change. Sakina introduces Mimi to the sights and culture of Karachi. In return, Mimi helps Sakina improve upon her English skills so that she can retake the test to get into school.

The chapters are written in first-person, present tense, alternating between Sakina’s and Mimi’s POVs so you can really get into each girl’s head and see what she thinks of the other girl. Both girls’ perceptions of each other–and of some other characters, too–begin to change over the course of the book as they give each other perspective and develop a genuine, heartwarming friendship. Driving the story is the mystery of Mimi’s estranged father, who also happens to be in Karachi at the time, and all the questions Mimi wishes she could ask him. This is a beautiful middle-grade tale of friendship, family, culture, and allowing our experiences to change us and help us grow.

Book Review: All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney

All-American Muslim Girl is a 2019 YA novel by Nadine Jolie Courtney. This book was one of my random Barnes & Noble finds while perusing the shelves in the store the other day. (Don’t worry; I didn’t stay long and I had my Scholastic “I ❤ Reading!” mask on.) One fleeting glance at the blurb and a sweep through the opening page, and I knew I’d found “the one” going home with me. This book was exactly the YA #OwnVoices pre-Covid contemporary escape I needed going into the holiday season and day 14 billion of the pandemic.

Allie (short for Alia) is our 16 YO protag. She’s Circassian on her dad’s side and American on her mom’s, so she doesn’t “look” Muslim and can often “pass” as white. That, combined with the fact her dad has pretty much renounced his Muslim heritage in favor of secularism, leaves Allie feeling not quite like the basic white girl she pretends to be at school, yet also hardly fitting in with her own Muslim relatives, either. Just when Allie’s crush, Wells, starts to turn into more than just a friend, Allie feels called to start learning about her family’s faith. It doesn’t help that dating is mostly prohibited (haram) in Islam, AND that Wells’s dad is basically the Sean Hannity/Tucker Carlson/Rush Limbaugh of a conservative, Muslim-hating news outlet. Double whammy.

While the blurb and the beginning of the story might lead one to believe it will center on Wells and Allie’s forbidden Romeo-and-Juliet romance, it was a refreshing surprise to discover this book is, at heart, about faith and family. My favorite element was the friendships between the girls in Allie’s Qur’an study group and their painfully honest discussions about the complexities of Islam, patriarchy, and feminism. The reader learns alongside Allie as myths about Islam are dispelled and beautiful, uplifting aspects of the religion are showcased. Wells’s character definitely takes a backseat as more of a background supporting role while Allie tries to navigate issues of personal identity and what it means to be both a Muslim and an American at the same time. But perhaps the biggest part of the story is Allie’s parents. They’re a superclose family unit at home, constantly supporting her in the best way they know how. While Allie’s dad is miffed that she’s choosing to openly embrace the stigmatized religion he’d always tried to shield her from, we can see where he’s coming from and it makes his relationship with Allie all the more endearing.

If I have one criticism, I feel like the backstory of Wells’s parent’s could’ve stood to be more fleshed out. I would’ve liked to have seen Wells’s dad be someone other than a villain. We all know white men of a certain age who spew out racist talking points in one breath then would give you the shirt off their backs in the next. People are complicated. As much as we might disagree with someone’s politics, the real world is more nuanced than Jack Henderson’s character. I thought that maybe this would be a story about both sides coming around and seeing eye to eye, but I’m naive. America’s too polarized for that story right now. Instead, this is a story of Allie learning how to stand up for herself, speak up for her faith, and accept that not everyone is going to be accepting.

In many ways, All-American Muslim Girl is the American version of one of my favorite Aussie books, Does My Head Look Big in This? Above all, it’s a heartwarming, honest, educational, well-written and timely tale about identity, imperfection, faith, and family. And people of all faiths can, hopefully, relate to that.

Book Review: The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

As a lifelong lover of “Clue” (both the movie and the board game) and, more recently, a big fan of Knives Out, I was surprised I’d never heard of a little 1978 Newbery Medal winner called The Westing Game. I downloaded it on my Kindle and couldn’t stop reading until the end.

The Westing Game follows a colorful cast of characters, all of whom live in a beautiful apartment complex overlooking Lake Michigan, called Sunset Towers. The building overlooks the mansion of a self-made millionaire named Sam Westing. When Westing is (supposedly) found dead at the beginning of the book, the 16 tenants of Sunset Towers are surprised to learn they’ve been named as his heirs. Westing’s will arranges the heirs into 8 teams of 2 who receive $10K cash and a nonsensical set of clues to a mystery they must solve. Whoever solves the mystery first inherits Westing’s entire $200 million fortune and all his assets, including his company.

The heirs competing to solve the clues are a diverse cast of characters ranging in different age groups, ethnicities, income levels and personalities. I found the scenes with the unintentionally bigoted Grace Wexler–a ’70s era “Karen”, if you will–partnered with the cynical Chinese restaurant owner, Mr. Hoo, particularly amusing. There’s also an endearing pair of Greek teen brothers, one in a wheelchair with a sort of palsy; a funny old doorman, a motherly dressmaker, a prestigious Black female judge, two young sisters who are polar opposites, among others. At the heart of the book was how each character started out flawed but changed for the better as a result of their partnership with the other heirs and the experience of the Westing Game. Watching so many unique personalities bouncing off each other was also highly entertaining.

If I have one complaint about the book, it’s the ending. Everything wrapped up too neatly and a the perfect happily-ever-after for every single character didn’t feel realistic or consistent with the overall quirky, at times shadowy, nature of the story. I was let down by the conclusion, but enjoyed the reading experience overall.

Book Review: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall by Katie Alender

Title: The Dead Girls of Hysteria Hall
Author: Katie Alender
Genre: YA Horror/Suspense
Page Count: 336 pages
Publisher: Scholastic Point
Release Date: August 30, 2016

Publisher’s Summary: Delia’s new house isn’t just a house. Long ago, it was the Piven Institute for the Care and Correction of Troubled Females — an insane asylum nicknamed “Hysteria Hall.” However, many of the inmates were not insane, just defiant and strong willed. Kind of like Delia herself. But the house still wants to keep “troubled” girls locked away. So, in the most horrifying way, Delia becomes trapped. And that’s when she learns that the house is also haunted.

Ghost girls wander the hallways in their old-fashioned nightgowns. A handsome ghost boy named Theo roams the grounds. Delia learns that all the spirits are unsettled and full of dark secrets. The house, too, harbors shocking truths within its walls — truths that only Delia can uncover, and that may set her free. And she’ll need to act quickly — before the house’s power overtakes everything she loves. Katie Alender brings heart-pounding suspense, gorgeous writing, and a feminist twist to this tale of memories and madness.

My Thoughts: Everything about this book made me scream YES! From the feminist angle on Victorian attitudes toward “hysterical women” to the flawed MC to the dynamic, multi-layered world-building and intriguing mysteries, twists, and turns pulling me along every page, I was completely entranced by this book from sentence 1. I found The Dead Girls… by googling “YA ghost novels” when I was in the mood for a good ghost story. But what I got from this was SO much more than that. It’s a novel with heart, with emotional resonance, and protagonist who learns and changes–even after she dies.

The intricate afterlife world-building and the physics of how being a ghost works in the time/space continuum had me fascinated. Every detail the author wrote, every passage, contained some further meaning, a purpose, a clue that comes into play later on. It all culminated into a multi-climaxed, beautiful message about life, love, redemption, and our place in the mysterious plan of it all. Characters aren’t always who we expect them to be, surprises lurk around every corner, and the MC, Delia, is always driven by some goal or another that kept me hooked. Yes, the paranormal goings-on were creepy, and so were the ghosts, but they were also people. Souls, with their own personalities and backstories. I grew to care about all of them.

Despite the cover’s bloodied appearance, this is not a gross or gory book, nor is it gratuitously violent. It is, rather, a poignant interpretation of life after death and a soul’s purpose. The end moved me to tears and gave me hope. I think this novel is perfectly brilliant and I gladly add it to my hall-of-fame of all-time favorites.

Book Review: Obsidian (Lux: Book #1) by Jennifer L. Armentrout

Title: Obsidian
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout
Series: Lux (Book 1)
Genre: Teen Paranormal Romance/Sci-Fi
Page Count: 400 pages
Publisher: Entangled Teen
Release Date: May 8, 2012

Publisher’s Summary: Starting over sucks. When we moved to West Virginia right before my senior year, I’d pretty much resigned myself to thick accents, dodgy internet access, and a whole lot of boring…until I spotted my hot neighbor, with his looming height and eerie green eyes. Things were looking up. And then he opened his mouth. Daemon is infuriating. Arrogant. Stab-worthy. We do not get along. At all. But when a stranger attacks me and Daemon literally freezes time with a wave of his hand, well, something…unexpected happens.

The hot alien living next door marks me. You heard me. Alien. Turns out Daemon and his sister have a galaxy of enemies wanting to steal their abilities, and Daemon’s touch has me lit up like the Vegas Strip. The only way I’m getting out of this alive is by sticking close to Daemon until my alien mojo fades. If I don’t kill him first, that is.

My Thoughts: I first heard about this book from a BookTuber (sorry, I forget which, I think her name was Emma?) who called it one of her “favorite trashy YA romance series.” I’d never seen or heard of it before, and alien romance was never necessarily my deal, but the BookTuber seemed to share my taste in other YA romances, so I ordered it in paperback along with the Syrena Legacy books. I instantly liked the narrator, Katy, who was a book blogger (yay!) and also, for some reason, a gardener? (Not sure if that has any purpose for the plot later in the series?) In very Twilight-y fashion, Katy is a high schooler who has just moved into a new town–this one’s in West Virginia–from sunny Florida. She makes fast friends with the girl next door, but the girl’s jerkwad twin brother hates Katy from the start for some inexplicable reason, and he never passes up the chance to let Katy know it.

Strange things start happening all around Katy. Next thing she knows, she’s embroiled in an all-out local alien war. Now, I was intrigued by the aliens’ powers and the worldbuilding in this one, but I don’t personally understand the whole ‘bully romance’ phenomenon. Enemies-to-lovers, on the other hand, I LOVE, so long as the character motivations are clear and the relationship eventually transforms into two people treating each other with loving kindness. But Daemon never stopped bullying Katy, and the only thing apparent between them was lust. It took until 3/4 of the book for me to finally warm up to him a little, once he helped rescue her from a potential date-rape situation. But I would’ve appreciated more opportunities to root with our hero.

The book is written in a super clever, snarky YA contemporary voice that is easy and enjoyable to read. It has just the right dose of sci-fi to be a genre PNR but doesn’t overwhelm you with science lingo or the physics (or astrophysics) of it all. As always with this genre, I tend to enjoy the side characters and their backstories, along with the world-building and scenery, more than the main couple. I recommend this book to fans of The Syrena Legacy, The Twilight Saga, and Guardian.

Book Review: The Testing (Book #1) by Joelle Charbonneau

Title: The Testing
Author: Joelle Charbonneau
Series: The Testing Trilogy
Genre: YA Dystopia
Page Count: 355 pages
Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers
Release Date: June 4, 2013

Publisher’s Summary: It’s graduation day for sixteen-year-old Malencia Vale, and the entire Five Lakes Colony (the former Great Lakes) is celebrating. All Cia can think about—hope for—is whether she’ll be chosen for The Testing, a United Commonwealth program that selects the best and brightest new graduates to become possible leaders of the slowly revitalizing post-war civilization. When Cia is chosen, her father finally tells her about his own nightmarish half-memories of The Testing. Armed with his dire warnings (“Cia, trust no one”), she bravely heads off to Tosu City, far away from friends and family, perhaps forever. Danger, romance—and sheer terror—await.

My Thoughts: I downloaded this book when Amazon recommended it because: 1) I liked the cover; 2) it takes place in the Great Lakes region (where I currently live); and 3) the opening reminded me of Matched and Brave New Girl, along with other great YA dystopia I’ve consumed over the last decade. The first act opened very strongly and didn’t disappoint. We care about Cia right off the bat because we know she’s smart and deserves her big break, yet she’s thrust into a secret, unfair, cutthroat testing ritual where the penalty for answering a single question incorrectly is death.

I would’ve liked to learn more about why the society was structured to kill off their smartest and most promising citizens. Perhaps the subsequent books will reveal the answer. I also would’ve liked the second act’s sequences to build off of one another, rather than feeling like a linear journey (with some deadly interruptions) back to the starting point. The fight-for-survival-in-Chicago was a little too reminiscent of Divergent (which I quit reading halfway through, because that was too reminiscent of The Hunger Games). By the end, the story is not complete and neither is Cia’s arc.

Of course, it wouldn’t be YA dystopia without romance. Although, I was surprised there was no triangle. I didn’t quite feel Cia and Tomas’s shared past; it was told rather than shown. I wasn’t sure what was appealing about Tomas other than physical attractiveness. I was much more intrigued by a side character called Michal, who worked for the United Commonwealth, but that might’ve just been me being weird. Michal was fascinating because you could tell he was full of secrets. There was something shifty about him and you couldn’t tell whether he was secretly good and with the resistance or secretly evil, but that’s what made him so fascinating. I was begging for Cia to fall for him instead — they actually had chemistry, whether intended or not. Alas, we don’t see much of him later in the book.

There were many elements of this book that reminded me of Brave New Girl, Delirium, Matched, Divergent, and The Breakout. Fans of those titles and everything YA dystopia might as well pick this one up too. But be forewarned: the story is not whole on its own, and seems it will rely on the rest of the trilogy to answer all the interesting questions it poses.