Thursday, May 26, 2016

ARC Review: The Loose Ends List

Title: The Loose Ends List
Author: Carrie Firestone
Publication Date: June 7, 2016
Publisher: The Novl / Little, Brown
Format: ARC*

“Seventeen-year-old Maddie O'Neill Levine lives a charmed life, and is primed to spend the perfect pre-college summer with her best friends and young-at-heart socialite grandmother (also Maddie's closest confidante), tying up high school loose ends. Maddie's plans change the instant Gram announces that she is terminally ill and has booked the family on a secret "death with dignity" cruise ship so that she can leave the world in her own unconventional way - and give the O'Neill clan an unforgettable summer of dreams-come-true in the process.

Soon, Maddie is on the trip of a lifetime with her over-the-top family. As they travel the globe, Maddie bonds with other passengers and falls for Enzo, who is processing his own grief. But despite the laughter, headiness of first love, and excitement of glamorous destinations, Maddie knows she is on the brink of losing Gram. She struggles to find the strength to say good-bye in a whirlwind summer shaped by love, loss, and the power of forgiveness.”

This is one of those rare instances in which all of the ingredients are right, but the cake isn’t baked properly and thus the end result is an unsatisfying mess. I wanted to read The Loose Ends List because it’s billed as a book about “death with dignity” – when a person decides to end their life in order to relieve pain and suffering, often due to a terminal illness. Euthanasia is still a rather controversial topic, but I was impressed to see it tackled in an upcoming YA novel. I have strong personal opinions regarding this concept, and hoped that The Loose Ends List would do it justice. In terms of how death with dignity was represented, the weight of that choice and its impact upon everyone involved, I thought The Loose Ends List was spectacular. Lots of difficult but necessary conversations happen throughout this book, and I think it’s important to included “hard topics” in young adult literature. However, I have to be honest and say that I didn’t enjoy a single other thing about this book.

As I get older, it’s becoming increasingly clear that I have little natural sympathy for characters of extreme privilege, and an author really needs to work hard for me to care about their problems. The Loose Ends List epically failed in this regard. Our protagonist Maddie comes from an absurdly wealthy family, all of who are forced to go on a death with dignity cruise when their matriarch, Maddie’s Gram, announces she’s dying. I think Firestone intended to write the family as initially unlikable but ultimately a group you’d come to root for, but she utterly failed in the execution. I was continually amazed at how selfish and unbearable these characters were – from Maddie’s hateful aunt to her alcoholic mother to her cousin who’s straight up described as a slut. I mean, seriously. The entire family was simply too much, and written in such a heavy-handed fashion that I couldn’t believe Firestone actually tried to pass this off as a relatable family. No family should be this worried about whether their granddaughter/niece/daughter/cousin is still a virgin. 

Maddie was perhaps the worst of them all – an insipid girl whom Firestone strikes with IBS for seemingly no other reason than to include a handful of not-funny remarks. Maddie’s grandmother is dying, they are on a trip around the world which will culminate in her grandmother being laid to rest, and she falls for a cute boy in the span of a day. This infuriated me. Why, why ruin what could have been a heartfelt, emotional family story with a love story? Young adult books do NOT have to have romance every single time, people. And in this case, Maddie’s whirlwind romance with a boy who sounds like a total loser and shames her for being a virgin insured that by the time Gram died and Maddie was more distraught over losing her boyfriend, I did not feel an ounce of sympathy for a single character in that family. The other people on the cruise? Sure, those characters I actually cried for. But I couldn’t stand the family at the heart of this story, and that ultimately ruined any goodwill I harbored towards The Loose Ends List. 

Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️

*I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Superhero YA Books I'd Love to Read

Yesterday, I posted a discussion video on my YouTube channel about the rise of Superhero YA. You can check out that video HERE if you’d like more information, but basically, I am a huge fan of the growing trend of YA novels about comic book superheroes. Starting with Black Widow in 2015, and looking ahead to the four DC/Random House books coming 2017 – 2018, it seems like the hot new trend in YA sports tights and a cape. Sign me up.

As someone who unashamedly loves the superhero narrative – but still loves a villain, let’s be real ok guys this is me after all – I’m so excited to see what’s in store. As I said in my video, I never read comics growing up and still find them intimidating, but I’m really into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and holy hell Suicide Squad looks right up my alley. So I thought that I’d compile a list of my top five superheroes who I’d like to see get the YA treatment, plus a couple villains because sometimes you can’t help but root for the bad guy. Maybe that’s just me.

1. JEAN GREY. Growing up, I was an X-Men girl, and Jean Grey was my FAVORITE. I know we’ll see young Jean Grey in the next X-Men movie, but I would love to get a YA novel from her perspective. Jean struggles with the intensity of her powers in a different way than her cohorts, and I think this would provide a great framework for a story. Plus, teenage X-Men at boarding school is just so very much a thing I want.

2. SPIDER GWEN. As much as I love Peter Parker, Gwen Stacey as Spider Woman is such an awesome novel waiting to happen. I’ve actually read the Spider Gwen comics, and this is a character and story arc that I really enjoy. Gwen plays drums in her all-girl band, The Mary Janes, and tries to reconcile her vigilante justice with her father’s status as head of police. This is prime novel material, people!

3. BLACK PANTHER. Aside from his role in Captain America: Civil War, I know little to nothing about T’Challa, which is A CRYING SHAME FOLKS. A prince who becomes king and a superhero, T’Challa has a lot going on – it can’t be easy to run a country and be an Avenger. Plus, he’s the first black superhero in a mainstream comic, and it’s time we stop accepting the media’s insistence that you must be a white man to be the hero and worthy of a story. Personality-wise, T’Challa is such a refreshing divergence from snarky Stark and whimsical Rogers. In my opinion, he’s one of the most exciting characters in the MCU, and while I’m so pumped for the Black Panther movie in 2019, I think a YA novel about this character would be awesome.

4. MS. MARVEL. Kamala Khan is Marvel’s first Muslim headliner, and oh is she awesome. Who wouldn’t devour a YA book about a sixteen year old who finds herself with super powers? Uh, no one, that’s who. Comics are woefully male, pale, and stale, but the latest incarnation of Ms. Marvel shows just who really runs the world. Girls. I know that Kamala Khan’s comics are very recent releases, but they’ve created great buzz, so all the better to capitalize on that popularity and write a book.

5. DEADPOOL. Because obviously. I don’t know how a teenage Deadpool story would work, but I want one.

I just realized these are all Marvel characters, whoops. If you’ve got DC recommendations, let me know!

And here are a couple villains I’d like to see featured, if not in their own novel, then at least in their superhero counterparts’ books: Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn. Loki, and Magneto!

What are some comic characters you would like to see get their own YA book? Let me know in the comments!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

ARC Review: Girl in the Blue Coat

Title: Girl in the Blue Coat
Author: Monica Hesse
Publication Date: April 5, 2016
Publisher: Little, Brown
Format: ARC*

“Amsterdam, 1943. Hanneke spends her days procuring and delivering sought-after black market goods to paying customers, her nights hiding the true nature of her work from her concerned parents, and every waking moment mourning her boyfriend, who was killed on the Dutch front lines when the Germans invaded. She likes to think of her illegal work as a small act of rebellion.

On a routine delivery, a client asks Hanneke for help. Expecting to hear that Mrs. Janssen wants meat or kerosene, Hanneke is shocked by the older woman's frantic plea to find a person--a Jewish teenager Mrs. Janssen had been hiding, who has vanished without a trace from a secret room. Hanneke initially wants nothing to do with such dangerous work, but is ultimately drawn into a web of mysteries and stunning revelations that lead her into the heart of the resistance, open her eyes to the horrors of the Nazi war machine, and compel her to take desperate action.”

As an historian who did her high school distinction project and undergraduate thesis on WWII (specifically the political context of the invasion of North Africa), I am always excited to read WWII YA. Girl in the Blue Coat is the third WWII YA book published in 2016, and it is an impressive addition to the genre.

For many people, Anne Frank is the beginning and ending of what they know about the Netherlands during WWII. I personally knew very little about the role that the Netherlands played in the war, and this book really shed some light on that, especially in regards to the resistance.

Our protagonist Hanneke uses dead citizen’s ration cards for her black market work, stockpiling goodwill from her neighbors, until one day she is tasked to find something she can’t get with a ration card: Mirjam, a Jewish girl who’s gone missing. Mirjam is one of the countless onderduikers, the hidden Jews of Holland who spent their days hidden from Nazis by their Christian neighbors in secret rooms, tiny cupboards, or attics like Anne Frank and her family. The inclusion of onderduikers and that experience was one of my favorite aspects of the book. I really appreciated that we have Jewish characters in the book that the reader gets to know and is presented with the reality of their experience in a highly collaborationist country. Over 100,000 Jews were deported from the Netherlands during the war, and Monica Hesse makes it a point to clearly show the reader how those deportations took place.

Hanneke herself was a real high point of the novel – she’s far from your perfect, good girl protag. Hanneke feels immense guilt over her boyfriend’s death, and she’s determined to work the system to her advantage. She isn’t interested in joining up with the resistance, but when she befriends a group of college students, she finds herself even more involved with the movement. The Girl in the Blue Coat is so multifaceted, and I appreciated that there was so much more to this than a search and rescue mission. There were so many surprises woven into the story that I was completely invested in Hanneke and her if she would succeed.

Girl in the Blue Coat was a fantastic read about a part of history with which I’m largely unfamiliar. I’ve been to Amsterdam before, so I recognized some of the locations mentioned in this book, which was a nice part of my personal reading experience. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, Girl in the Blue Coat needs to make its way onto your TBR list.

Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ 

*I received an ARC of this in exchange for an honest review. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

DNF Diaries: A Tyranny of Petticoats

I fully expected to love this anthology of short stories that feature badass girls in American history. Unfortunately, that’s not at all what happened. Welcome to another installment of DNF Diaries!

“Crisscross America — on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains — from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They're making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.”

The Good: Some awesome YA authors wrote stories that about women throughout American history, which is an amazing concept. Further, they’ve covered the entire gamut of American history, from colonial days to the Civil Rights movement, and created protagonists that are as diverse as the American population.

The Bad: I read roughly 100 pages before giving up, so I obviously can only talk about the stories I managed to finish. Those stories, however, were not well written. I wasn’t engaged by any of the early stories, perhaps because short stories are difficult for me to enjoy, but mostly because the writing and plot lines were just meh. I forced myself through one underwhelming story, assuming the next would be better. It wasn’t. Rinse and repeat until I just couldn’t handle another subpar attempt at historical fiction. As someone from Louisiana, I found Jessica Spotswood’s story particularly shitty. Just…nope.

The Ugly: Why, I ask the universe, on my knees, shaking my fists at the sky as a torrential downpour splatters raindrops on my tear-stained face, why did this have to be magical realism?!? Whyyyyy??? It is already so difficult to find quality historical fiction in YA. As a trained historian, I was ecstatic to read what I thought would be an awesome anthology about young women in America’s history. I was not ecstatic to read those stories, with the addition of supernatural creatures and magic. What that says to me is that these authors didn’t think history was good enough for young readers – we need to add magic! But not all of the stories have magic, so on top of the confusing magical realism this anthology isn’t even consistent! History is already interesting enough, and the insistence to include magic was distracting to the point of irritation. Why couldn’t this just be a straight up historical fiction anthology? I was obviously so annoyed that I couldn’t force myself to read another page.