Words in Deep Blue

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The modern technology age has changed just about everything in the consumer market- music, shopping, and more. Bookstores fall into this category as well.  There was a time where there were several national book chains, now Barnes and Noble remain the sole one. However, independent bookstores still exist in just about every city and town. This is where the events unfold in Australian author Cath Crowley’s novel Words in Deep Blue.

For the past twenty years, Henry Jones’ family has run a secondhand bookstore in Gracetown, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Henry, the oldest child who lives above the shop with his parents and younger sister, lives and breathes books. The store is famous for its “Letter Library,” a section of books where people are free to write in or leave notes between the pages.  One of many notes that were left there was a love letter to Henry from his best friend Rachel Sweetie, who left three years earlier.

Rachel should be looking forward to being 18 and her future. Instead, she is overcome with the drowning of her younger brother Cal ten months earlier. Having dropped out of school and needing a distraction, she returns to Gracetown to live with her aunt Rose and find a job. She ends up working at the bookstore with Henry, and they begin to reconnect through a series of letter to each other and experiences with old friends.

While this may sound like the classic unrequited best friend love story, this is far from it. Instead, it is the story about grief, friendship and life choices. Rachel initially decides not to tell anyone about Cal, thinking that it will get better. Meanwhile, Henry struggles to figure out his future, wrestling with feelings for his ex-girlfriend and his family’s decision on possibly having to sell the bookstore.

The story is told through alternative first-person perspectives. Rachel’s chapters are filled with her inner thoughts about her brother. Henry’s chapters describe his confusion about Rachel’s mood. This made the story very realistic, because in real life people don’t know what’s going on in another’s head. The rest of the cast of characters are quite real as well, reminding me of people I’ve known in real life.

Henry does eventually find out about Cal, and his reaction is honest. ” ‘I don’t know how to talk to you about this,” Henry says,” because I’ve never been where you are.’ ” (page 190.)

Interspersed within the chapters are letters and notes written on the pages of certain books, paying tribute to the practice of letter writing. My favorite quote from the novel is:

“Words matter, in fact. They’re not pointless, as you’ve suggested. If they were pointless, then they couldn’t start revolutions and they wouldn’t change history. If they were just words, we wouldn’t write songs or listen to them. We wouldn’t beg to be read to as kids. If they were just words, then stories wouldn’t have been around since before we could write. We wouldn’t have learned to write. If they were just words, people wouldn’t fall in love because of them, felt bad because of them, ache because of them, and stop aching because of them.” (page 210.)

I highly recommend this novel because of its beautiful tribute to words and books, and its realistic depiction of how grief can affect one’s life.

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What Light

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Since it’s the holiday season, I decided to check out a YA novel set during this time of year. Written by 13 Reasons Why author Jay Asher, What Light is a love story that includes friendship, letting go of the past and Christmas trees.

Every year, 16-year-old Sierra has traveled to California from Oregon with her parents to run their seasonal Christmas tree lot during the month of December. Although she doesn’t like leaving her best friends behind for the holidays, Sierra revels in the tradition, the chance to see repeat customers and spend time with her California best friend Heather. This year, faced with the possibility of her family not returning the next year, Sierra’s Oregon best friends suggest that dating somebody might be a fun way to spend what might be her last time in California. Sierra is wary of the thought of a short-term romance, but then she meets local guy Caleb. Caleb works at a local diner and delivers Christmas trees to less fortunate families. Sierra feels a connection to Caleb’s sensitivity and humility and the two begin to form a relationship. As she bonds with Caleb, Sierra faces skepticism from Heather and her parents, but is determined to make her own decision.

I liked Asher’s different take on short-term romance, a concept usually used in stories of summertime flings. Instead, the story takes place during the holiday season, a time when most people are ready to start fresh in the new year. The presence of Christmas trees serves as a symbol of something that brings people together.

Given the heavy themes in 13 Reasons Why, I wasn’t surprised to see Asher weave in serious issues within the plot. Caleb’s backstory (which I won’t spoil) focuses on the idea of not letting someone’s past actions dictate who they are and how rumors can sway people’s opinions. These are issues that are prevalent in today’s society, especially in the age of social media. There are also themes of honesty and relationships with family and friends. I did find the ending predictable and some scenes slightly unrealistic, but this novel is worth checking out to help you get into the holiday spirit.

Happy Holidays!

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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.

 

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