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.

 

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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.

Once and For All

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About two months ago, I heard that Sarah Dessen was coming to a bookstore near my city to do a reading and signing for her latest novel, Once and For All. Since I had never been to a signing, I decided to go and check it out. Of course, driving to the suburbs of the nation’s capital at rush hour is not easy, and I didn’t arrive until after she had finished the reading. Fortunately, I still got a chance to meet Sarah (me being the very last person in line) and get my book signed by her. It was a cool experience.

For me, reading a wedding-themed novel couldn’t have come at a better time. My older brother got married about three months ago, and I got a small glimpse as to what he and his wife did to plan for the big day. I wasn’t too involved with the process myself, but I found myself fascinated with all the work of 14 months that culminated in just one entire day, or really just a few hours. Anyway, on with the book review.

Louna is the teenage daughter of a wedding planner in South Carolina. Being in the business of happily-ever-afters, she’s seen it all- reluctant brides, stressed out wedding parties and uninvited guests. However, Louna herself doesn’t believe in love, partly due to her own first love ending in tragedy, something that soured her perspective. During one of her wedding events, she meets Ambrose, a charismatic guy who isn’t committed to long-term relationships. When he comes to work for them for the summer, Louna finds herself struggling to maintain her perspective of love while dealing with Ambrose’s contrasting views.

I liked the wedding element of the novel. Dessen portrays how many details go into the planning of the big day, not just the guest list and the wedding party, but everything from from the caterer and the decorations to making sure everyone is present for ceremony and the timing. There’s also details about how ceremonies can range from a courthouse wedding to a huge 300-person gathering.

That being said, I didn’t find the actual plot of Louna and Ambrose’s relationship to be that appealing. After reading Dessen’s 2015 novel Saint Anything, which centered more around family love and inclusion than romantic relationships, I guess I expected her next book to have as much depth as that one did. But truthfully, I found that this novel lacked substance and felt more like recycled material from her previous books. Dessen is still a great writer, but I wish Once and For All had been a more complex and layered story.

 

Five Year Anniversary

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Five years ago this summer, I was halfway through my college career, majoring in journalism. I had been taking the typical classes- writing and reporting, editing, and composition and critical thinking. I still had two more years of college to look forward to and more classes to take.

One of the requirements of my journalism degree was 400 hours of internship. The previous summer, I had held an internship with my hometown newspaper, covering local stories and learning the publishing process. Summer 2012 however consisted of me only working my job as a cashier, wanting to earn money for my study abroad semester that fall. I was still covering some town meetings for the newspaper, but I still felt restless and wanted to be doing something to keep my writing skills sharp. This was something I mentioned to my brother while he was up visiting from D.C.

“If you’re a journalism major, you should probably have a blog.” he suggested.

“But what about?” I asked. “People with blogs seem to have a focus, but all I’m really doing is college right now, and there are already a million ones about being in college.”

“What’s something that you like that you could write about?” he said.

I thought about it for a little bit, glancing over at the book I had been reading. Books. Reading.

“Maybe I could write about books.” I mused.

“That’s something,” he said.

And thus Books By Betsy was created. I came onto WordPress and made my account, choosing the notebook theme because I liked the look. Since then, I have reviewed over 100 books, although I’m pretty sure I’ve read more than that in the past 5 years. A few years ago I started to promote my blog through my Twitter account, tagging the authors, and even get a shout out from them once in awhile. As an aspiring author myself, it’s great being able to read different kinds of books and sharing my thoughts about the story.

A few months after I launched this blog, I began to document my experiences of studying abroad in a foreign country that fall. I called that blog Experiencing England, As you can tell, I like alliteration in my titles, but I also chose that title because I didn’t find it used anywhere else.

Thank you to those who have read my blog. If you have any books you want me to review or any other comments or suggestions, please leave them below. Keep reading!

 

 

Always and Forever, Lara Jean

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The third book in Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy, the final novel is entitled Always and Forever, Lara Jean. My reviews of the first and second book can be found in previous posts.

Lara Jean Song Covey is in her senior year of high school, and life is good. Her and Peter’s relationship is stronger than ever, her father is getting married and her older sister Margot will be coming home for the summer soon. With graduation coming, the future is on her mind: starting college and a new beginning, preferably with Peter. Their plan is to attend the University of Virginia together. But when Lara Jean unexpectedly doesn’t get in, it makes her wonder what her future will really hold- and whether or not it will include Peter. Further doubts arise when she realizes that she has to say goodbye to the friends she has known since childhood.

First of all, what’s interesting about this novel is that it wasn’t originally planned. According to an interview with Bustle, Jenny Han stated that after writing the second book, she was focusing on other projects but kept going back to Lara Jean. She realized that writing the end of Lara Jean’s high school career would serve as a good conclusion to the series.

One of the elements the novel most focuses on is college admissions. Senior year is usually when most high schoolers apply to colleges and make their decision by the unofficial date of May 1. Sometimes, people don’t get in to the school they want and have to go with their second school, a decision that’s not always easy. This is the kind of situation that Lara Jean finds herself in. The plot also focuses on how an existing relationship can be affected if the two people decide to go to two different colleges. Long-distance relationships can be hard to maintain.

Another difficulty Lara Jean deals with is having to leave her family, friends and home for college. While her older sister Margot has been at college, Lara Jean took on her role of helping around the house and taking care of their younger sister Kitty. But now she realizes that she’ll be away from her sister, father and new stepmom. Change is a major theme of the novel, and I liked how Han handled it realistically- having Lara Jean talk to her friends about their futures and how things will be different.

I definitely recommend this novel to those who enjoy a story about the end of one chapter and the start of another.

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