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 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: Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah

Title: Where the Forest Meets the Stars
Author: Glendy Vanderah
Genre: Adult Contemporary Fiction, Romantic Suspense
Page Count: 328 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Release Date: March 1, 2019

Publisher’s Summary: After the loss of her mother and her own battle with breast cancer, Joanna Teale returns to her graduate research on nesting birds in rural Illinois, determined to prove that her recent hardships have not broken her. She throws herself into her work from dusk to dawn, until her solitary routine is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious child who shows up at her cabin barefoot and covered in bruises.

The girl calls herself Ursa, and she claims to have been sent from the stars to witness five miracles. With concerns about the child’s home situation, Jo reluctantly agrees to let her stay—just until she learns more about Ursa’s past.

Jo enlists the help of her reclusive neighbor, Gabriel Nash, to solve the mystery of the charming child. But the more time they spend together, the more questions they have. How does a young girl not only read but understand Shakespeare? Why do good things keep happening in her presence? And why aren’t Jo and Gabe checking the missing children’s website anymore?

Though the three have formed an incredible bond, they know difficult choices must be made. As the summer nears an end and Ursa gets closer to her fifth miracle, her dangerous past closes in. When it finally catches up to them, all of their painful secrets will be forced into the open, and their fates will be left to the stars.

My Thoughts: I was hooked from page one. Make that sentence one. After reading Where the Crawdads Sing, I was hungry for more adult contemporary fiction, and this one fit the bill. It even had a perceived added magical realism element, that of the little girl claiming to be an alien.

Jo Teale is a graduate student researching nesting birds in the countryside of Illinois when a little girl shows up on the property, claiming to be an alien. Jo does everything to try to return the girl home, but Ursa, as the girl calls herself, insists that she’s an alien, until even the police don’t know what to do with her. Ursa says she’ll leave after she’s witnessed five miracles on earth. Jo becomes Ursa’s guardian, unwillingly at first, but fast grows attached to her new charge. Jo also begins to spark a relationship with Gabriel, a local farmer who sells eggs on the roadside. Gabriel wants to help Jo solve the mystery of Ursa, but they must be careful, lest Ursa run off, or the two adults face deep trouble for harboring a child that’s not their own.

Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that, if you want to know where Ursa came from, and whether she really is an alien, you’ll have to read the whole book. If I have one criticism, it’s that Jo’s backstory is perhaps too tragic, at the risk of being melodramatic. I thought it was enough that she survived breast cancer and needed a double-mastectomy; to have lost her mom recently to cancer as well just seemed unnecessarily harsh. Although, perhaps it explains why Jo feels such a strong maternal urge toward Ursa, since she knows what it’s like to lose her mother.

I found this to be a very engaging, addicting read. I recommend it to readers interested in magical realism, contemporary romantic thrillers, science and environmentalism, parenting and social issues.  

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Title: Where the Crawdads Sing
Author: Delia Owens
Genre: Adult Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Page Count: 379 pages
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: August 14, 2018

Publisher’s Summary: For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” have haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet town on the North Carolina coast. So in late 1969, when handsome Chase Andrews is found dead, the locals immediately suspect Kya Clark, the so-called Marsh Girl. But Kya is not what they say. Sensitive and intelligent, she has survived for years alone in the marsh that she calls home, finding friends in the gulls and lessons in the sand. Then the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. When two young men from town become intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new life–until the unthinkable happens.

Where the Crawdads Sing is at once an exquisite ode to the natural world, a heartbreaking coming-of-age story, and a surprising tale of possible murder. Owens reminds us that we are forever shaped by the children we once were, and that we are all subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.

My Thoughts: I haven’t read regular adult fiction (as opposed to YA or MG) probably since I was in high school—ironically—so I can’t say what really compelled me to download this book, other than the fact I kept seeing it everywhere, and I was in a brooding mood seeking a more serious read. Where the Crawdads Sing is the story of Kya, the “Marsh Girl” who lives alone in the marshes of North Carolina. The author’s expertise on birds and wildlife really shines through this well-written coming-of-age novel, wherein the marsh itself takes on a character of its own. We oscillate between time periods, from Kya’s childhood and coming-of-age, her lovers and losses, and a murder mystery the narrative is leading up to. The third act admittedly dropped me a little by unexpectedly turning into a court drama—I thought I was reading something like Sue Monk Kidd and then it turned into To Kill A Mockingbird—but I appreciate the versatility of the novel. That kept it from becoming one-note.

I really liked Kya and her story. And I’ll confess, the ending put a big, fat Cheshire cat-like smile on my face. I recommend this book to fans of lyrical adult contemporary fiction, environmentalism, and women’s fiction.

Book Review: Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams

Title: Genesis Begins Again
Author: Alicia D. Williams
Genre: MG/YA Own Voices Contemporary Fiction
Page Count: 385 pages
Publisher: Atheneum/Caitlyn Dlouhy Books
Release Date: January 15, 2019

Publisher’s Summary: There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.

What’s not so regular is that this time they all don’t have a place to crash, so Genesis and her mom have to stay with her grandma. It’s not that Genesis doesn’t like her grandma, but she and Mom always fight—Grandma haranguing Mom to leave Dad, that she should have gone back to school, that if she’d married a lighter skinned man none of this would be happening, and on and on and on. But things aren’t all bad. Genesis actually likes her new school; she’s made a couple friends, her choir teacher says she has real talent, and she even encourages Genesis to join the talent show.

But how can Genesis believe anything her teacher says when her dad tells her the exact opposite? How can she stand up in front of all those people with her dark, dark skin knowing even her own family thinks lesser of her because of it? Why, why, why won’t the lemon or yogurt or fancy creams lighten her skin like they’re supposed to? And when Genesis reaches #100 on the list of things she hates about herself, will she continue on, or can she find the strength to begin again?

My Thoughts: I don’t even know where to begin with Genesis Begins Again. This book is beautiful, moving, heartbreaking, charming, inspiring, devastating, and everything in between. This is simply a phenomenal work of YA Own Voices Fiction about a girl learning how to love herself. It also takes place in metro-Detroit, where I live, which was pretty cool. I was so invested in Genesis’s story—everything from her personal internal struggles with her skin tone and her flawed but well-meaning father, to her new teachers and classmates and profound musical talent—I found it impossible to put this book down even to eat a meal. Memorable was her newfound friendship with a Greek classmate suffering from OCD, and the contrast between the two girls. I absolutely adored everything about this book and enthusiastically recommend it.

Book Review: What I Saw and How I Lied (*National Book Award Winner) by Judy Blundell

Title: What I Saw and How I Lied
Author: Judy Blundell
Genre: YA Fiction
Page Count: 300 pages
Publisher: Scholastic
Release Date: February 1, 2010

Publisher’s Summary: National Book Award Winner | When Evie’s father returned home from World War II, the family fell back into its normal life pretty quickly. But Joe Spooner brought more back with him than just good war stories. When movie-star handsome Peter Coleridge, a young ex-GI who served in Joe’s company in postwar Austria, shows up, Evie is suddenly caught in a complicated web of lies that she only slowly recognizes. She finds herself falling for Peter, ignoring the secrets that surround him . . . until a tragedy occurs that shatters her family and breaks her life in two.

My Thoughts: I’m going to be honest: I stayed up all night to read this book. Totally threw away any chance at feeling normal and having any energy left the next day. And was it worth it? Heck yes. I even used the last hour the babysitter was here, when I got done with my work earlier than expected, to finish the book. Again, worth it. This is simply a fantastically-written YA noir mystery, full of lust, lies, murder and betrayal…but oh, so subtly, with all the right hints hidden in all the right, tight spaces. I don’t know how the author did it. Noir? In a novel? YA-style? You betcha.

This historical YA book was delicious. The writing was hypnotic. I actually felt like I was watching a black-and-white movie full of Old Hollywood secrets and glamor. It even gave me that same creepy feeling as reading & watching the original “Lolita”. I felt all of Evie’s emotions along with her: her swooning, if not misguided, first love; the burn of betrayal; the guilt and shame of her mistakes, the earnestness in her heart, the pressures of her family and all of their dark drama.  I can’t wait to see what else this incredibly gifted author has written.

Book Review: The Similars Series (The Similars & The Pretenders) by Rebecca Hanover

What happens when you take a futuristic YA dystopia and mash it up with clones and elite kids at a prestigious academy? You get the absolutely flippin’ awesome, unputdownable duet by Rebecca Hanover, The Similars (Book 1) and The Pretenders (Book 2). We meet Emmaline when she’s reeling from the recent suicide of her best friend, Oliver. When she returns to their elite boarding school, Darkwood Academy, for the fall semester, she is shaken to discover Oliver’s exact DNA replica, a boy named Levi, is also in attendance. Now she has to see the face of the best friend she loved – and lost – every day in a devastating, unwanted reminder.

But Levi’s not the only one. There’s a whole slew of “Similars” — clones — taken unknowingly from the DNA of Darkwood’s top-achieving students, including some of Emma’s friends and enemies, in attendance this year too. The clones’ very existence begins to cause political problems for the famous parents of their DNA originals, and incites the school to anti- vs. pro-clone division. Emma tries to stay out of it, but she can’t help but be thrust right into its very core.

If I have one complaint, it’s that some of the revelations about the staff and the parents’ past connections together near the end of the 2nd act felt a bit too Harry Pottery. I would’ve liked to see something fresher and a little more original. But I can look past it because the sci-fi and thriller (as well as romantic) aspects were on fire.

I devoured both books and suggest you do the same. This is a powerful dystopia series with something to say!

Book Review: Pollyanna by Eleanor H. Porter

I was sick throughout a lot of last winter (2019), and it was the most I could do to lie in bed and listen to audio books. I discovered Mary Anderson’s free reading Pollyanna through LibriVox, and was hooked from Chapter 1. Pollyanna Whittier is an optimistic little girl who has endured great trials in life but always manages to keep a positive attitude by playing what her father called the “Glad Game.” No matter what, she finds something to be glad about. When she is orphaned and must go to her mother’s hometown to live with a stuffy old aunt she’s never met before – who, despite her large estate, makes Pollyanna sleep in a hot attic – Pollyanna is perpetually glad.

The story is told in third-person omniscient, rotating from the maid’s point of view, to the aunt’s, and to various other characters’, as well as Pollyanna’s. One by one, sweet, young Pollyanna begins to change the lives and attitudes of every person she encounters in the town until, toward the end, when she finds herself in a bad situation, the whole town rallies behind her. This is a beautiful story about the difference one life, one child can make, and the power of innocence and positivity. I haven’t loved a classic this much since The Secret Garden, and I will treasure this story for years to come. Thanks to LibriVox for the free recording.

Book Review: Song for a Whale by Lynne Kelly

Title: Song for a Whale
Author: Lynne Kelly
Page Count: 224 pages
Genre: MG Fiction
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Release Date: February 5, 2019

Publisher’s Summary: From fixing the class computer to repairing old radios, twelve-year-old Iris is a tech genius. But she’s the only deaf person in her school, so people often treat her like she’s not very smart. If you’ve ever felt like no one was listening to you, then you know how hard that can be.

When she learns about Blue 55, a real whale who is unable to speak to other whales, Iris understands how he must feel. Then she has an idea: she should invent a way to “sing” to him! But he’s three thousand miles away. How will she play her song for him?

Full of heart and poignancy, this affecting story by sign language interpreter Lynne Kelly shows how a little determination can make big waves.

My Thoughts: This is easily one of my all-time favorite MG novels. From the get-go, we immediately root for Iris, a twelve-year-old girl who is deaf and loves to repair broken radios (symbolic, in a way). Iris is the only deaf student in her school, which makes her feel unheard and like an outsider. She wants to go to the all-deaf school, but her parents fear that sending her there may disconnect her from them. When Iris learns about a whale who speaks at a frequency that no other whales can hear or understand, she feels an incredible compassion and affinity. She begins to work on a project that will show the whale, Blue 55, that he’s not alone. But everything from distance to school and her parents is determined to keep her from her goal of reaching Blue 55.

I wept…a couple of times…when I read this novel, and immediately bought copies for several of my loved ones. This story really moved me and I enthusiastically recommend it to readers of all ages.