My Life Next Door

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Next-door neighbors are an interesting entity. Whether you know yours or not, you get a small glimpse into the lives of other people. I grew up in a rural small town where most people knew their neighbors one way or another, but it depends on where you live. My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick draws on the concept of next-door neighbors and combines it with romance.

From the moment the Garrett family moved in next door ten years ago, Samantha Reed has been fascinated by the family’s tumultuous lifestyle. The large family of eight kids is a complete contrast from Sam’s life, which consists of her, her older sister Tracey and their single-parent mother. With Sam’s mom running for state office and Tracey away for the summer, Sam isn’t looking forward to an exciting season. But her summer takes an interesting turn when a chance meeting with middle child Jase pulls her into the life of the Garretts and gives her a new perspective about how large family lives. She learns more about herself and how her affluence has affected the way she views life. There’s also a twist that brings up the moral dilemma of doing the right thing and how it will affect your life.

One of the major points of this novel deals with judgementalism. Jase repeatedly tells Sam about how his parents are constantly asked by strangers why they have so many kids and are offered unsolicited advice as to how to raise them. Sam’s mom’s opinion of the family was formed on the day they moved in, without attempting to get to know them more. I liked how Fitzpatrick chose to highlight a very real issue in today’s society.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the realism of Jase’s and Sam’s relationship. It’s the classic and somewhat cliche tale of two people who come from different backgrounds and fall in love. However, there were other supporting characters that added complexity to the story. There’s Tim, the twin brother of Sam’s best friend, who is lacking motivation and dabbling in drugs and alcohol. He becomes an unexpected confidante for Sam. Although his dialogue is peppered with curses and expletives, I found this to be realistic. There’s Clay, Sam’s mom’s new boyfriend, whose obsession with perfectionism and image makes Sam realize just how superficial her life has been. Fitzpatrick created a cast of characters that reflect people we all know in real life.

My Life Next Door is worth a read due to the diverse characters and important life lessons.

 

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Perfect Chemistry

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Chemistry is a science class that most people have to take during high school in order to graduate. Chemistry also means the sexual tension that two people might feel toward each other. The word takes on both definitions in this book by Simone Elkeles.

Set in the suburbs of Chicago, Perfect Chemistry is the story of Brittany Ellis and Alejandro Fuentes. Brittany is the daughter of picture-perfect parents who has everything a girl could want, wealth, best friends and a boyfriend. Alex is of Mexican descent and a member of a local gang who owns a motorcycle and gives off an intimidating vibe. Both seem to fit the stereotypes of high school society- Brittany the gorgeous cheerleader and Alex the tough-guy rebel. But there is more to them then meets the eye. Brittany suffers from the insecurity of living up to her parents’ strict guidelines and taking care of her disabled older sister Shelley. Meanwhile, Alex struggles to protect his single mother and two younger brothers and experiences flashbacks to the night his father was killed. When the two are partnered for chemistry class during their senior year, their lives collide in ways that they never expected, and the chemistry between them flares up.

The story is told through alternating first person accounts of Brittany and Alex. I like when authors do this, because it provides more perspective to the plot. Elkeles creates believable characters in both Brittany and Alex, mostly though their inner dialogue. Brittany  describes how afraid she is that people will find out the truth about her home life, while Alex struggles with his effort to give his younger brothers a better life than he has. This gave their personalities depth and realism. Alex’s description of the Latina culture, including several Spanish phrases, adds some diversity as well.

There were parts of the story that I felt could have been omitted or shortened. For example, one chapter has Alex teaching Brittany how to properly drive her car and them spending the entire day together. While it seems to focus on developing their relationship, I felt like there had already been several interactions like that already in the book, and the whole section felt repetitive. The entire book is 368 pages, which seemed a little too long for me.

Some parts of the gang presence did not feel realistic to me. One instance is how Alex and his fellow gang members wear bandannas as a “uniform,” even to school. I know for a fact that my high school did not allow students to wear bandannas for that very reason. I don’t know if that rule varies depending on where in the United States you are.

I do recommend this novel for those who like stories about star-crossed lovers, but it might take some effort to get through the almost 400 pages.

 

 

 

 

Uncommon Type: Some Stories

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Tom Hanks has been one of my favorite actors since I was young. Toy Story and Forrest Gump were both staple movies of my childhood, and I was mystified that the person who played character with the Southern drawl was the same person who voiced the animated character of Woody. So when I found out Tom Hanks was coming to the Warner Theatre in  D.C. to promote his new book, Uncommon Type: Some Stories, I decided to go check it out.

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He and well-known author Ann Patchett talked for more than an hour about a wide variety of topics, including his experiences in the film industry, and how the literary world interweaves with the movie world. He answered several questions from the audience about how acting has affected his life, his family and his overall psyche. He didn’t hesitate to throw in a couple of curse words while he spoke, which I found realistic and relatable.

Tom Hanks

While many celebrities usually debut in the writing world with memoirs, Hanks chose to write fiction for his first full-length book. Uncommon Type is an anthology that contains seventeen short stories. What links them all together is that each story contains a typewriter in some way, whether it be a brief mention or a main part of the story’s plot. The plots themselves differ widely and are set in several different decades, although there are some overlapping characters.

Tom Hanks book

I could see several of Hanks’ own personal experiences within the stories. One is about an actor trying to make it in the New York City, which is where Hanks first moved after graduating from college. Another one is about a Greek immigrant who has just arrived in America, which echoes the story Hanks told about how his father-in-law got to the United States. The writing style changes throughout the stories; some are written in first person and some in third person. The narrator or protagonist of the story also changes the tone. For example, one story that focuses on a 10-year-old boy describes details from a child’s perspective. The theme of typewriters comes from Hanks’ own hobby of collecting typewriters, highlighted in this segment from CBS This Morning. 

I mostly enjoyed the stories, but I felt like a lot of them lacked substance. Those ones had characters and settings, but not a clear plot line. It was almost as if some were bits and pieces of longer stories instead of their own, and others felt incomplete. Hanks does have some writing experience; he wrote the screenplay for 1996’s That Thing You Do! and some pieces for the New York Times and Vanity Fair. 

The typewriter aspect was the best part of the book. Its presence in all of the stories showed it was an object used by everyone, no matter their background or life circumstances; a common link. He pays tribute to the machines by including a picture of one before each story. It makes the book worth checking out.

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Turtles All the Way Down

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Warning: spoilers. 

I’m going to be 25 next month, but I still enjoy reading young adult fiction. John Green is one of my favorite YA authors and has been since I got The Fault in Our Stars for Christmas about five years ago. Since then, I’ve read the rest of his novels: Looking for Alaska, Paper Towns and An Abundance of Katherines. Looking for Alaska is my favorite one.

Turtles All the Way Down came out earlier this month, and is his first novel in almost six years. To promote the book, John and his brother Hank went on tour, and made a stop here in D.C., so I had the chance to see them. Their show was very enjoyable- John read a passage from the novel and talked about writing it. Hank and John did a session where they answered questions from the audience. Hank played his guitar and sang some songs.

Each ticket included a signed copy of the book. Published in hardcover, the cover features an orange spiral encircling the title with font in a paintbrush style.

Anyway, on with the book review.

Aza Holmes is a 16-year-old who lives in Indianapolis. She has obsessive compulsive disorder that complicates her daily life, as her “thought spirals” can make it impossible to focus on one thing. When Aza’s best friend Daisy Ramirez suggests that they try solve the disappearance of local billionaire Russell Pickett, Aza reconnects with his son, childhood friend Davis, and the two of them form a relationship of sorts. But she struggles to maintain a normal friendship and relationship as her mental health begins to take a turn.

The plot itself was not what I expected. Most of John Green’s novels revolve around the themes of romance, mystery, high school and social interaction. While Turtles does have these themes, John chose to focus on the very real issue of mental health, a departure from his previous books. He incorporated his own experiences of having OCD and anxiety into the character of Aza, which made her very realistic and relatable. Since the story is written in first person, we get to experience her thought spirals right with her. Her “invasive” thoughts are constantly present as she tries to live and interact with others normally. She carries a bottle of hand sanitize with her as a reminder to keep her hands clean and is aware of her digestive system as it breaks down her food. And she has to be one of the most profound characters John has written.

I have to admit that some parts of the novel were hard to read. There’s a part where Aza begins to break down and drink hand sanitizer. I had to put the book down and take a couple of breath before continuing, because I could feel the desperation she was experiencing. But I saw it as a sign of how effective John’s writing in this was. My favorite quote comes from page 9, “It’s quite rare to find someone who sees the same world you see.”

I highly recommend this novel because it’s a realistic portrayal of what having mental illness entails and how it can affect not just you, but the people around you. I can only hope that this novel can help in the effort to de-stigmatize the topic of mental illness.

As for what the title means? Well that’s something you’ll have to find out. For now, here’s a video of a turtle swimming down.

 

Broad, Casted: Gender, Media, Politics, and Taking on the Establishment

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Like I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, I grew up outside of Rochester, New York, in a small town of about 6,000 people. My parents would always watch the news as a way to know what was going on, and I soon realized that I liked watching it too. I was fascinated by how the newscasters got to go out and talk to all sorts of people everyday. Rachel Barnhart was one of the many newscasters that we watched. Broad, Casted: Gender, Media, Politics and Taking on the Establishment is her memoir that documents her run for the New York State Assembly against Republican Harry Bronson during the summer of 2016.

In the first several chapters of the book, Rachel writes about growing up in Rochester, attending public school and deciding to major in college in journalism. Reading about her early life reminded me a lot of my own, attending public high school and being a cashier at the local grocery store as a teenager. I also majored in journalism in high school, though I decided not to become a reporter, and instead headed to D.C. to work in communications.

I enjoyed reading about the campaign trail experiences, because it reminded me of when my dad ran for town supervisor back in 2009 when I was in high school. Rachel talks about the neighborhoods she visited, the people she met and the responses she got. My dad would come home each night with stories about his experiences going door-to-door and talking to all kinds of people. He didn’t win, but those four months gave us an interesting perspective into local politics.

Tying into that, another great part was learning about how local political races work. There’s the announcement, but then comes the marathon of fundraising, getting petitions, advertising, making campaign stops and more. I’ve only come to learn more about the different types of races and just how many there are: State Senate, State Assembly, Mayoral, Gubernatorial, Congressional, and of course, Presidential.

Living in the nation’s capital, the majority of our 2016 was consumed by the highly unusual presidential race, and the suspense of not knowing who would move into the White House next. I found it refreshing to read about a much more local race and learning more about the legislative districts that encompass the Rochester area.

One of the more serious issues Rachel talks about throughout the book is the criticism she received in person, online, and through the campaign mailers, and how it was linked to sexism. This was a common theme seen throughout 2016 in not just that race, but in the presidential race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The election generated millions of reactions around the country and world, causing tension between friends and even complete strangers.

I definitely recommend this memoir for people who are interested in reading about journalism and politics.

Ask Me Anything

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Living in big cities can make for an interesting experience, full of opportunities and meeting people from all over the place. There are a whole genre of novels that center around characters in the big city. Ask Me Anything, by American author Francesca Delbanco, falls into that category.

New England native Rosalie Preston lives in New York City and aspires to be an actress. She is a part of a theatre troupe called the First Borns that consist of her and several of her college friends. Rosalie also has a day job as a love advice columnist for a teen girl magazine. Life In New York City also means love triangles among the group of friends, though Rosalie’s experience goes a different direction when she falls in to an affair with her best friend’s father.

Being a transplant myself who moved to a big city, I related to Rosalie’s experiences about what leaving home can be like. However, I felt like I’ve heard the plot line before: young columnist who lives in New York, has a group of diverse friends and is aspiring to be an actress. It reminds me of Sex in the City meets Friends meets Seinfeld. I’m not saying I have anything against those TV shows, but reading similar plot points made the story feel recycled and tired. Rosalie also interjects commentary throughout the chapters, but instead of adding to the story, I felt like it interrupted the flow. Delbanco created interesting characters, but there just wasn’t much of a story.

I later found out that Francesca Delbanco is one of the creators of the Netflix series Friends from College, which tracks the lives of Harvard graduates in New York City. After watching the first episode, I can definitely see the parallels between this novel and the TV show. I’m glad to see that Delbanco found success as a TV writer, which in my opinion, suits her more.

I do recommend this novel for a good read during a trip. I actually read this book during a bus trip to New York City, which did make for a relevant setting.

 

Faking Normal

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Certain situations can impress into our mind, leaving certain feelings depending on what it is. Getting assaulted is a traumatic experience that can leave someone with a sense of constant fear and anxiousness. This is the focus of Faking Normal, the debut novel of American author Courtney C. Stevens.

Alexi Littrell may seem like a normal 16-year-old: she has two best friends, an older sister, and the attention of a couple of cute guys at her high school. But what people don’t know is that something terrible happened to Alexi over the summer, and she hasn’t told anybody about it. She maintains her facade of “faking normal” by compulsively scratching the back of her neck in private, and trading written song lyrics on the underside of her desk with the anonymous “Captain Lyric.”

Her life is further altered when acquaintance Bodee Lennox comes to live with her family after he experiences a family tragedy. The two bond over their shared secrets, and Alexi finds that Bodee gives her the strength to admit what happened to her and to do something about it.

While the plot may sound similar to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, which is also about a girl who’s assaulted over the summer and doesn’t tell anyone, Alexi’s relationship with Bodee is what makes the story unique. Instead of being attractive to the popular, athletic guys that most female characters would be, Alexi finds solace in Bodee’s calm demeanor. Bodee, in turn, provides Alexi with an unbiased, undemanding perspective about her situation.

Stevens also portrays Alexi’s anxiety and insomnia realistically- the way she sleeps in her closet to feel safe and counting the vent slits to concentrate on something. She doesn’t try to sugarcoat Alexi’s experience and even emphasizes the importance of speaking up, even including a passage at the end of the novel about what resources are available.

I definitely recommend this novel to people who enjoy reading stories about healing and the significance of saying something.

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