Tag Archives: YA

Popular Books that Impressed Me

A couple weeks ago I started a list of popular books that didn’t live up to my expectations, and now I’d like to even it out with another list: popular books that impressed me more than I expected. I believe this will be an ongoing series; I’ll add to both lists as the titles stack up.

A lot of these are YA books, and I could say the same thing about almost all of them: I expected a light, standard YA story, be it romance, supernatural, etc. I was expecting quick, easy reads with the usual tropes and story arcs that I could check off a list and then forget about– but none of these are forgettable reads. Instead of sharing a long synopsis of each, I’m going to stick to explaining why they surpassed my expectations. If you want to learn more about any of these books, follow the links to my full reviews of each title. Without further ado, here are five popular books I wasn’t expecting to appreciate as much as I did:

  1. The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis. There’s a bit of an exaggerated focus on rape in this book, but it’s put to good use. The Female of the Species is empowering, it’s positively moralizing, it has bark and bite and grit. It’s a story about standing up against all kinds of wrongs. But it’s also about forgiveness, about finding healthy relationships and giving chances to unlikely friends. There are some great parents in this book, a cop who knows how to talk to teens, and aid for abused and abandoned animals. McGinnis doesn’t just look at the big picture, she gets all the little details right, too.
  2. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. This is a book for readers of adventures. For readers who aren’t afraid to suspend their disbelief. It’s a story of gods in which even the gods are fallible. This is a collection of ancient stories brought to new life. They’re stories that test limits: the limits of immortality, of invincibility, of impossibilities and other absolutes. The characters aren’t particularly lovable, but the end of their world is as heart-breaking as it is exciting. In this realm of gods and magic, anything is possible and the reader can never know what to expect. The lessons don’t often apply directly to life as the reader knows it, but there are valuable lessons nonetheless, and there’s something so satisfying in learning about the traditions and beliefs of long-lost times and peoples.
  3. A Million Junes by Emily Henry. This book was described to me as a romance– a retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story, to be exact. And there is that, but it’s only one small part of this masterpiece. A Million Junes is a romance, but it’s also magical realism, it’s a family history piece, it’s a testament to grief, it’s a father-daughter relationship at its best. June is reconciling her family’s past with its future, she’s finding her place in school, she’s enjoying her senior year with her good friends. And she’s seeing ghosts, and ghosts’ memories, and traveling to an in-between place where love and life collide. This is a book for anyone who’s ever lost something, or doesn’t quite know who they are.
  4. The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. This book seems like it should be a romance. It starts with a girl and a curse– the boy she loves will die when she kisses him. Seems like a pretty standard forbidden-love-romance-story, right? Wrong. Blue (the girl) finds the boy she’s going to try hard not to love and kiss and ultimately kill. But then she decides to try a relationship with a different boy, same rules, just in case. Except none of the four boys she’s freshly befriended are anything close to ordinary, and for that matter neither is Blue. She comes from a family of psychics, and her new friends are on a quest to find a lost king who may or may not be dead and buried. This is more a story of friendship and adventure than romance. The quality of the magic is strange and compelling– not quite serious but not quite a joke. Here are five teens being teens, and then stumbling upon secrets larger than life. The writing is gorgeous, and the plot unfolds like nothing I’ve ever seen.
  5. City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. Good is always battling evil. Angels vs. demons seems like no exception, but this book is not so black and white. The Shadowhunters are no angels, and demons come in all shapes and sizes: full-blooded horrors and creatures much closer to human. But this is good vs. evil in a whole new way, in the midst of a war for equality between the earthen races, five teens are struggling not only with literal demons, but with the complications of their mortal lives. It’s about the bond between parents and children, the cost of secrets, the difficulties of loving the wrong person, the responsibilities on the shoulders of almost-adults who didn’t ask to be heroes. It’s a story about growing up, about judging right from wrong, about treating other groups of people fairly. It’s a world hidden inside our own, but the same lessons apply.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Have you read other popular books that surpassed your expectations? Let me know in the comments below.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Popular Books I Didn’t Like

When I write my regular book reviews, I try to be objective about the contents and the layout of the book, to talk about things the books do well or poorly instead of listing my likes and dislikes more specifically. Since you can find all sorts of synopses on the internet already, I do let my opinions show through the review instead of discussing at length the facts you could easily find elsewhere. But at heart, my reviews are always meant to promote the books I’ve read, because even if I didn’t like them, other people probably will and I’m a promoter of reading. Yet sometimes it’s fun to compare what other reviewers have liked or disliked without reading through dozens of individual reviews, so I’m starting a list.

I’ll probably post more lists like this periodically, alternating between popular books that didn’t live up to expectations for me and popular (or even not-quite-so-popular) books that I didn’t expect much from but they surprised me with their greatness.

A disclaimer: these are just my opinions. You might agree or disagree, and that’s valid. I’ll link each of the titles to my reviews, and you might be surprised to find that I haven’t rated many of these lowly. I rate on a 5 star scale based on the merit of the writing, and I base my personal likes and dislikes on my emotions about the book after some time has passed since reading it. I still recommend these books to readers who like similar books even though I personally didn’t enjoy them. So the fact that I don’t like them does not necessarily mean they’re bad books.

And now, as the straightforward title of this post announced, here are some popular books I didn’t like:

  1. Cinder by Marissa Meyer, and the rest of the Lunar Chronicles series. I liked the plot enough to read the whole series, but most of the characters seemed very similar and predictable to me, and I could not stand the slow, repetitive pace of the writing. There is a lot of internalized worry about what could happen instead of a lot actually happening. And as the books continued, all of the main characters, the females especially, felt like the same person inside who’d just been born into different circumstances. This is one series that I loved in concept but not in execution. My opinion of these novels might have improved, because I did enjoy the fourth volume the most, except I also read the accompanying novella, Fairest, which sealed my dislike of all things Lunar Chronicles when it failed to show how the villain of the series became villainous–instead, we had a look at the same villainy earlier in the evil queen’s life, the explanation seeming to be more or less that she was born with it. And yet it took 200 pages to make that clear. I don’t think I’ll be reading anything further from Meyer.
  2. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a magical realism novel, and when I read it I thought maybe the reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d expected had to do with a dislike for the genre, but that wasn’t it. I liked the main characters at the beginning of this novel, when they were young and first discovering magic and science, but when magic and science and nature all crossed in the end, things got too weird for my taste. There was just too much going on, too many threads crossing at once into something so big it just seemed ridiculous and no longer plausible with any amount of suspended disbelief.
  3. Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Similar to Cinder, this book is a retelling of a familiar story: in this case, the Wizard of Oz. But the main character was so slow to understand things and asked so many obvious questions that even the other characters were annoyed with her inability to put two and two together. Beyond that, the main character doesn’t do much of anything on her own–she’s always following someone’s instructions instead of making her own path. Many of the characters, especially the evil ones, seemed so stereotypical and cruel for the sake of being cruel, which is the least entertaining sort of villain, in my opinion.
  4. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas. I actually like the other two books in this series a lot, but there was not much in the first novel to redeem it. First, the part of the plot in which someone under extremely odd and unlikely circumstances must fall in love with someone in particular and then somehow they orchestrate it to happen exactly that way was too far-fetched for me. It’s the 11th hour, and in comes Feyre the savoir playing *coincidentally* right into the only loophole of a weirdly specific curse. She’s given three tasks to break it, the riddle is so obvious that it’s insulting and it was painful to see Feyre fail to answer it immediately, and oh, even if she wins, no one seems to believe the villain will even honor her word and end the curse. It just feels so fictional, and even the foreshadowing with Rhysand was obvious, though that might be the only part of this book I would ever be interested in reading again.
  5. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare. I’ve been a Cassandra Clare fan since 2010, and I do like a lot of her other books and even some of the characters that appear in this one. But I reread this one this year and was shocked at the cruelty of the characters to one another. Some of the rudeness plays into the plot, but it felt like it went way beyond that. Jessamine seemed like an entirely unnecessary character whose presence felt like a plot device, Charlotte and Henry fall pray to that bad plot confusion where they could settle all their problems if they’d only have an honest conversation for five minutes, and the main character’s introduction to London is so dreary and unpleasant that the entire book felt dreary and unpleasant to me.

These are five books that I’ve read in the last year that I no longer like to think about much. I’ll be following these up soon with five books that surpassed my expectations.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Clockwork Princess

I’m on a mission to read all of Cassandra Clare’s books this year, and after months of feeling like I was stuck in the middle, I have reached an end–not the end, because I still have two collections of short stories and three full novels to go, but I have officially reached the end of the Infernal Devices trilogy. Although I had read the first two books of this series previously, this was my first time through book three, Clockwork Princess. This will be a spoiler-free review, but you should read Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince before continuing below.

clockworkprincessAbout the book: Mortmain’s evil plans are coming to fruition–the automatons are now nearly unstoppable and countless in number. All he’s missing is Tessa, the final piece toward completing his scheme, and he won’t be missing her for long. Charlotte and the other residents of the London Institute are preparing to end things once and for all–if they can manage it, with only nine fighters. More likely, they’ll fight to the death and make no more than a dent in Mortmain’s army. Defeat would mean disaster for all shadowhunters, but the Consul is looking for any excuse to remove Charlotte from power at exactly the wrong time–no one else will help her now. With Jem and Tessa and Will all tangled up in conflicting love and honorable intentions, there are threats of broken hearts on the horizon, as well as the potential end of all Shadowhunters.

” ‘There must always be a first,’ said Jem. ‘It is not easy to be first, and it is not always rewarding, but it is important.’ “

I would easily say this is the best book of the three. The action starts right away, but without the momentary confusion of coming into the middle of a scene. From the beginning there’s a wider range and more equal distribution of character perspectives presented than we’ve seen in the earlier Infernal Devices books–Will, Tessa, and Jem are still our main characters, but the reader also sees secondary points of view early and often throughout the book. Sophie, Charlotte, Cecily, the Lightwoods…

“We see our better selves in the eyes of those who love us.”

First of all, there’s a plot hole here. In this volume, the reader finally learns about Mortmain’s “creation” of Tessa, and what he’s planned for her. But even if he played a role in her existence, how does that explain his knowledge of her unique shape-shifting talent? This is a question for anyone who’s already read this book–if Tessa’s the first of her kind, how could anyone (Mortmain included) have known what specific power she would display, even before Tessa knew?

But back to the review. My only real complaint about Clockwork Princess, and to a lesser extent, the other books in this trilogy, is its length. I do not mind reading long books, but I think most of the issues I had with Clockwork Princess could have been resolved on their own if Clare had been restricted to a shorter page/word count. First we have Jessamine, a largely pointless character. This trilogy failed to make me sympathetic to her case, and her reappearance in this volume provides only a reiteration of information. She does very little to further the plot throughout the trilogy. Secondly, we have annoying repetitions, which I mention in more detail in my review of Clockwork Prince, but which also appear in this book. The reader follows multiple perspectives, which I enjoy, except for the parts where the characters discover the same things at different times and the reader is forced to read a repeat of the same information. I wish Clare would have found a way around that. I also wish some of the Jem/Will/Tessa angst had been left to the reader’s imagination. Because thirdly, we have nonstop angst. It was clear from book one that they all love each other, and the looks and gestures between them would’ve been enough to convey the difficulty of that situation without each character describing their love and pain in every chapter. Will’s curse from book one and Jem’s and Tessa’s engagement from book two (and something else I won’t describe from book three) are the only real changes between the three of them, and yet we are given hundreds of pages of reasoning as to why each of them shouldn’t be in love with the other but is anyway.

That’s a hard point to criticize though, because the overly drawn-out love triangle angst is basically the purpose of the book. The mystery with Mortmain could have fit inside one book if all the relationship drama were removed from the trilogy; after the first book, he’s barely present. We don’t see him at all in Clockwork Prince, and in this book he makes one big play for total control of the Shadowhunter world, which is significant, but hardly takes up 568 pages. I’m not sure it even takes more than 100. Clearly the tension between Jem and Will and Tessa is the majority of the book. And just below that is the romantic tension between the secondary characters…

” ‘Life is a book, and there are a thousand pages I have not yet read. I would read them together with you, as many as I can, before I die–‘ “

Not all of Cassandra Clare’s books are that way. There’s always angst, but this trilogy in particular is full of the complications of love. Others are much more plotty. Clare writes some great plot twists, but very few of them can be found in Clockwork Princess. What can be found, though, is a sort of elegant exploration of love and all its complications. And through that, the largest weakness of this book–its overstated romantic tension–also becomes its main strength.

“Life was an uncertain thing, and there were some moments one wished to remember, to imprint upon one’s mind that the memory might be taken out later, like a flower pressed between the pages of a book, and admired and recollected anew.”

And if you’re only reading for the love story, you’ll appreciate this ending. The last 80-100 pages of this book lay plot entirely aside to explore how things turn out for our main characters after everything settles down.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Personally, I could have done with a little less angst. But the story between all the heartache was well done, and even the heartache had its moments. I admit I was wary of this trilogy when I read Clockwork Angel this year–I didn’t like it as much as I’d remembered, and I was afraid the rest of the series would feel the same; but the three books steadily improved, and I think the rocky start was worth reading just for this third volume. I believe there’s a spin-off series (also by Cassandra Clare) starting publication in 2018, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for that. I’ll also be continuing onward through the rest of the Shadowhunter works, including a read of City of Heavenly Fire in August, which will be another satisfying end, I hope.

Coming up next: I’m presently reading my classic of the month, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Classics reviews only appear in my monthly wrap-ups, so you’ll find my thoughts on Treasure Island there, and my next full review will feature Ruth Ware’s The Lying Game. Ware’s book features a group of boarding school friends who’ve grown up and are dealing with an unexpected death, and the uncovering of lies they’d vowed not to tell each other.

Do you like starting a great series, or finishing it? There’s such a big difference between the anticipation of a great first book and the satisfaction of concluding the last one. While I liked the conclusion better in this trilogy, I think generally I’m a fan of first books–they excite me. Which do you prefer?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Choose My Next Read: Round 3

Here’s your chance to vote for a book you’d like to see me review in August! I’ve been particularly enjoying having some assistance in deciding what to read next from my ever-growing TBR, and I love seeing your feedback on which books I should read and which reviews you’re most interested in. So without further ado, please choose my next read!

The category: first in a YA series

The rules: choose one title from the list I’ve compiled below of unread books from my TBR that fit this category, and vote for it in the comments. The book with the most votes (or randomly selected winner between tied titles) will appear on my August TBR, to be read and reviewed within the month.

The books:

  1. The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh. The 18 year-old ruler of Khorasan takes a wife every night–only to have her killed in the morning. Shahrzad volunteers for one such marriage with the intent of revenge for a friend who died under the same circumstances. She tells stories to keep herself alive, and in the process learns the secrets of the tortured ruler who killed her friend.
  2. Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. In 2575, there is an ongoing war over possession of a small, icy planet. Kady and Ezra, in the middle of a bad break-up, are forced together in the evacuation and additionally through a plague outbreak. On top of those challenges, the artificial intelligence of the ship seems to be working against their race to figure out what, exactly, is going on in space.
  3. The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. With few survivors left on Earth, those who remain have learned not to trust anyone. Beings who look human but are decidedly not also roam the planet, so when Cassie meets someone new who might be able to help her she must first determine whether he is who he appears or presents a new danger altogether.
  4. The Kiss of Deception by Mary E Pearson. Princess Lia is out to break tradition–the tradition of arranged marriage for royalty based on best political gain. She runs away on the morning of her own wedding to settle in a distant common village, unaware that two men are pursuing her–an assassin, and the prince who would have been her husband.
  5. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Hobbit Bilbo Baggins ventures on a quest for treasure guarded by a dragon. He stands to gain more than gold–through each part of his quest he faces a new challenge that will also teach him in turn to use the complete range of his personal skills and encourage him to learn about his own nature. (I’m counting this as first in a series because I intend to read the Lord of the Rings trilogy afterward, and would be using this one to get me started.)

choosemynextread3

A disclaimer: I’m agreeing only to read the first book of any of these series in August. I do own the next books in each of these sets, and I do intend to continue at least through a second book in all of them, but when I get around to a second book in a series depends on my interest level in the first and what else I’ve already planned for upcoming months. But I will absolutely read at least one of these books in August.

Please lend a hand. Drop a name. Leave a vote in the comments, because there are too many books on my TBR that I should’ve already read and I don’t even know where to start. Which of these books would you like to see me review next?

The deadline: Wednesday, July 26, 10 pm US Central Time.

May the best book win!

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Between Shades of Gray

I read Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea earlier this year and enjoyed it immensely, and was looking forward to picking up her first novel, Between Shades of Gray. This book, a YA historical fiction tale, was the winner of July’s Choose My Next Read vote, so thank you to everyone who participated and stay tuned for August’s vote later this week!

betweenshadesofgrayAbout the book: Lina is at home in Lithuania with her mother and small brother when the family is forcibly deported by Soviets. Lina’s father is already missing, so when the rest of the family arrives at the train station amidst a crowd of deportees, she goes looking for him. The men are not going to the same place as the women and children and infirm, so Lina must use her artistic drawings and trust the passing hands of strangers to convey messages to her absent father concerning the family’s whereabouts. Conditions in the train car are awful, but they’re nothing compared to the inhumane treatment Lina and her family find in the labor camps. Eventually they land in Siberia, where they must build their own winter-proof huts out of scraps while the Soviet officers enjoy warmth and fresh food from their bakery. Lina and her family fight for survival for themselves and the other members of their group, knowing that their chances are better if they can only make it through the first sunless Siberian winter.

“Was it harder to die, or harder to be the one who survived? I was sixteen…but I knew. It was the one thing I never questioned. I wanted to live.”

About the layout: Between Shades of Gray is told in the first person, from Lina’s perspective. The chapters are short and easily readable, despite occasionally gruesome subject matter. There are also sections within the chapters that reflect Lina’s memories prior to her deportation.

The memories felt unnecessary to me. They don’t further the plot, and the characterization they show could be gained from Lina’s present story line, except maybe in the case of Lina’s father’s past “crimes.” Yet even those I felt could be described from the present, and nothing would be lost. Some may argue that it’s touching to compare Lina’s life before and after the war, but it felt so… expected. Of course Lina had a beautiful, innocent life with innocent troubles before the war. She was a young girl with hopes and dreams–and I would have felt the same about her past without seeing those memories. I kept looking for something in this book to surprise me, but the memories were not that something.

“It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. What was life asking of me? How could I respond when I didn’t know the question?”

Between Shades of Gray is certainly emotional, but the emotion also feels obvious. Of course there were horrors against humanity in WWII. Of course people experienced unspeakable atrocities, and of course when we’re given a chance to look at their lives individually it’s all tragic. That aspect of the book did not surprise me at all, either. I was expecting sad deaths and unfair living conditions, so their appearance was not shocking, and I was still looking for something surprising to drive the story beyond the expected.

This is a story in which things happen to the characters more often than the characters are in control of their own actions. Lina does what she’s told. She doesn’t like it, but she wants to survive. Occasionally she draws to help create a record and to spread news to her father of her whereabouts, but those moments are quick and sparse and don’t give the story much forward motion. Sometimes Lina defies orders by stealing or sneaking away from where she’s supposed to be, but again, they’re small moments that contribute to small episodes of action and add little to the main narrative. Perhaps one could argue that the main plot thread involves Lina’s family trying to find and reunite with Lina’s father, but other than asking for news from strangers and sending out clues of their lives through more strangers, there’s nothing there to go on. Thus, the book lacks plot, motivation, and character action, and without those things there’s less tension except in small, episodic increments.

“I clung to my rusted dreams during the times of silence. It was at gunpoint that I fell into every hope and allowed myself to wish from the deepest part of my heart. Komorov thought he was torturing us. But we were escaping into a stillness within ourselves. We found strength there.”

One thing Sepetys does particularly well is to humanize the “bad guys.” The bald man in Lina’s group who is obsessed with death annoys and frightens everyone, but Sepetys will warm hearts to him in the end. The German soldier who grates on Lina’s nerves also has a story that blurs the line between villain and victim. The rude woman Lina’s family lives with at their first labor camp has a surprise in store when it comes time to say goodbye. The good guys hide their sacrifices and the bad guys are better than meets the eye. Lina’s mother is especially interesting. It would’ve been interesting to see some of this book through her perspective, behind the brave face she puts on for her children. Somehow she knows who to be kind to, how to stretch her resources, and how to put the difficulties of a situation aside.

This is a suitable book for young YA readers, as the horrors of war are related as morals rather than gory scenes.

“There were only two possible outcomes in Siberia. Success meant survival. Failure meant death. I wanted life. I wanted to survive.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Even though I gave them the same rating, I think if it came to a choice I would say I preferred Salt to the Sea over this novel. There are some similarities, but the switching between character perspectives in Salt to the Sea and the climax of that story involving the naval disaster gave that book more momentum. I did feel that Between Shades of Gray was an emotional and worthwhile read, and I know Sepetys has a lesser-known novel that I may be interested in reading in the future, but overall I think I’m learning that YA historical fiction is not my favorite thing. It’s a little too transparent for my taste.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea is a great follow-up. I would recommend reading Salt to the Sea second, because there are some related characters with a small continuing plot thread that would be easier to pick up in publication order. This novel also emphasizes Sepetys’ skill at proving no one is who they seem; every character has a private story that makes them so much more than their role in WWII.
  2. Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is another obvious but worthwhile suggestion for Sepetys fans. The Book Thief is also YA historical fiction focused on WWII, but takes place in Germany, focusing on a poor family who must pretend to believe what they don’t in order to survive Hitler’s changes in the country.

What’s next: I’m currently rereading George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, and I will definitely have a review up for that within the month, but it is kind of long and a reread so I may pick up another undetermined book from my July TBR to read at the same time, in which case there would be another review before that one.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’ debut novel The Hate U Give has been picking up steam before it even released to the public, and now, a couple months past its publication date, it still hasn’t slowed down. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this book is both timely and well-written–if you read (and even if you normally don’t) this is a book worth picking up.

thehateugiveAbout the book: Khalil is driving Starr home from a Garden Heights party when they are pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. The cop thinks they’re acting suspiciously, and one unannounced move wins Khalil three shots to the back. This is the second time Starr has witnessed the death of a best friend. She’s caught in the middle between loyalties to her family and neighborhood and the reputation she’s built for herself at a predominantly white school. Speaking out for Khalil and fighting for justice is dangerous for her in both worlds, but as her home life and school life collide she has to decide what she’s willing to fight for, and which people in her life are really on her side.

” ‘These cases always interesting,’ King says. ‘The dig for information. Shit, they try to find out more ’bout the person who died than the person who shot them. Make it seem like a good thing they got killed.’ “

Right at the start, I want to talk about how hard it’s been to find a good direction for this review. Generally when I’m writing reviews I aim to stick to the story itself, and not go into tangents about the current state of the world. But this is a book that’s meant to raise awareness and start conversations, and that intent is what I want to talk about.

“People like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”

There are a lot of things to love about The Hate U Give, and readers have been talking about all those good things for months. Like everyone else, I appreciated the writing style, the plot, and its attempt to raise awareness of continuing racism in America, because the book does all those things indisputably well. I do think it misses an important opportunity, though.

I don’t disagree with the argument that there is still racism in the US. It’s not something that I see firsthand every day, but I have no difficulty believing that it’s out there, not just in big ways like unfair deaths but in a thousand small words and gestures. I can get behind that argument. I can get behind the need to stop racism. What I can’t get behind is substituting one instance of racism with another one. There are generalizations about white people in this book. Just a small handful of instances, and nothing too cruel beyond the fact that they’re generalizations, but I was surprised to find them here at all. It’s odd to see commentary like that coming from Starr, who’s so aware of offenses going the other way and who’s interested in justice, not revenge. I felt that these moments were maybe meant to make white readers a little uncomfortable, to flip the tables and show them what the characters in this story are dealing with, and for that reason I didn’t completely mind that those instances were in the book even though generally I feel that’s the wrong approach. The real reason those little instances of being lumped in a category with people who ride garbage cans down stairs and kiss dogs on the mouth bugged me was because this book could have done more to make a positive change. It has everyone’s attention–but what is it doing with it?

That’s the missed opportunity. The Hate U Give does a great job of raising awareness of injustices. It shows a case where the white man’s word means more than the black girl’s, and does it in a way that convinces the reader that this is not unusual in modern US. But what can we learn from it? What is it telling readers they can do differently to help solve continuing problems of racism? If you’re a cop, maybe it tells you to learn the whole story before you shoot. But if you’re not a cop, what can you do? If you don’t have a black girlfriend to follow through riots, what can you do? There are good characters who set good examples in this book, but very little to suggest what readers can do to follow their footsteps. I didn’t expect this to be a stop-racism-instruction-manual. But I think this book really missed a great opportunity to encourage positive change when it stopped at raising awareness.

“At the end of the day, you don’t kill someone for opening a car door. If you do, you shouldn’t be a cop.”

But that’s not the reason I docked a star from my rating. I believe this book could’ve made even more of a statement, but the statement it does make is an effective one. It’s a great book, and I highly recommend it. But it’s one of those stories you have to read for the characters, because there’s not much to surprise readers in the plot. Once you know the premise, you know the most important event of the book, and anyone living in (or hearing about) modern US can make an educated guess about the end result of that main event. Everything else has to do with character, and while they’re great characters, they’re not surprising either.

“I can’t change where I come from or what I’ve been through, so why should I be ashamed of what makes me, me? That’s like being ashamed of myself.”

But let me end on a good note, because I loved everything else about this book. Starr’s family is fantastic. The writing style is easy to follow, inspiring, and keeps the reader hooked from page one, no matter what they’re feeling about the subject matter. These are the sort of characters that readers wish were their real friends. It’s that perfect blend of fiction and reality that I love–the sort that blurs the line between fact and imagination, and proves literature can do important things.

” ‘Brave doesn’t mean you’re not scared, Starr,’ she says. ‘It means you go on even though you’re scared. And you’re doing that.’ “

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I got exactly what I expected from this book. We need more of this in literature–fiction that shows what’s going on in real life; although I also hope that writers will be brave enough to offer more suggestions for change. There are important messages in this book, about voices being powerful weapons and the need to listen to the whole story, every time, and refrain from making assumptions. I would definitely read another book from this author, and you can bet I’ll be recommending this one in the future.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward, a memoir about a young woman in Mississippi whose family and friends have been dying one by one as a direct and indirect result of continuing racism. This is a powerful story of five lives lost in five years, with enough narrative to appeal to habitual fiction readers even though it’s grounded in fact.
  2. If you’re looking for more YA that raises awareness of real-life problems, Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species and Robin Roe’s A List of Cages are great choices. McGinnis’ book highlights the very real effects of rape on an entire community, and Roe’s book focuses on misuse of the foster system and guardianship rights. Neither deal directly with racism, but are timely and important YA novels that I believe are also important for readers looking to learn about the modern world through fiction.

What’s next: I’m just starting Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Gray, a YA historical fiction novel about a Lithuanian girl trying to communicate with her father through her art while she’s at a Serbian work camp during WWII.

Have you read any recent releases? What did you think?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: A List of Cages

Robin Roe’s A List of Cages is a 2017 contemporary YA release that’s been on my radar all year, but I haven’t actually seen it anywhere–bookstores, libraries, etc. It’s been oddly absent. Finally I requested it on interlibrary loan so I could read it in July, and here we are.

alistofcagesAbout the book: Julian and Adam were foster brothers in childhood, but then Julian’s uncle came to claim him. For five years, Julian has been living with his uncle, but now he’s starting high school–the same high school that Adam attends as a senior. Adam has a whole crew of friends already assembled, but after meeting Julian again at school he makes sure there’s always room in his life for Julian. At first the two are just happy to be reunited, but Julian’s life hasn’t been problem-free for a long time and this is no exception. His uncle objects to Julian spending time with Adam. Adam is not allowed in the house, Julian has to hide the time he spends with Adam both in and out of school. As Julian’s uncle becomes more aggressive in an attempt to control Julian’s life, Adam begins to notice that something is wrong with the situation, though Julian is making every effort to appease his uncle by denying that anything bad is happening. Adam may be able to rescue Julian from his uncle’s abuse, but if he can’t succeed, Julian’s situation will only get worse.

“I know what I think, but people don’t want you to say what you think. They want you to say what they think. And knowing what that is isn’t easy.”

I appreciate the messages of friendship and justice in this book, and I think that Julian’s character is adorable–he’s young for his age, but observant and objective in ways that prevent him from seeming ridiculously childish when he doesn’t understand something or behave as expected. These are the aspects that made me rate this book as I highly as I did, though I also had some problems with its execution.

Firstly, Adam’s character falls flat. He’s not unrealistic, necessarily, but predictable. He’s the kind of guy who would maybe be fun to know in real life, but in fiction he comes off as particularly fictional. After about two chapters in Adam’s perspective, nothing he was going to do had any power to surprise me. I grew increasingly bored in his chapters. His plot threads about the senior class dare game and crushing on  Emerald seem almost painfully cheerful-bland and unnecessary to the overall story. In light of what Julian is going through, it’s hard to be interested in Adam having his usual good time with his horde of friends and generally being loved by everyone. It’s nice to see a character who has struggled with ADHD living such a happy life, but I did not need nearly so much detail about that because it didn’t really have anything to do with the plot. It seems like Adam is only necessary in this book at all to be in the right place at the right time for Julian. I’m glad Adam exists in this story, for Julian’s sake, but I wish he stuck to the background. It doesn’t feel like his story to tell.

I also didn’t like that almost every adult in this story is so mean. Sometimes when you’re a kid, the grown-ups seem like the bad guys; sometimes the grown-ups actually are the bad guys. But I don’t think that every single teacher and nurse and casual bystander should be depicted as cruel toward children. I can only think of two adults in this novel who were nice to any of the teens in this book, and those two were the overly nice “I’m going to spend all of my time and energy looking after kids who need my help” type who didn’t step in when it was needed until one of the other kids brought the big problem to their attention. It feels unrealistic, and it’s a bad message to send teen readers that there are no adults willing to help them, and that all adults are blind to teenage strife. There are grown-ups who can and are willing to help.

“It’s strange how many ways there are to miss someone. You miss the things they did and who they were, but you also miss who you were to them. The way everything you said and did was beautiful or entertaining or important. How much you mattered.”

On the plus side, this is one of those books that brushes close to actual problems in the real world and raises awareness without becoming overly moralizing. It highlights problems like child abuse and how children with quiet and/or unusual personalities can be taken advantage of by ill-meaning adults, but it does those things without cramming “you should do this to help the cause” suggestions down the reader’s throat. It doesn’t make the reader feel like a bad person for being unaware that stories like this can happen. And that’s one of the things I love best about fiction–something totally made up can make a real difference without turning into a how-to pamphlet.

Warning: A List of Cages deals with some heavy topics. Be prepared to encounter some abuse, bullying, and grief in this story.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had a good time reading this book, despite its grim subject matter and the few complaints detailed above. It’s easily readable and insightful, and I’m definitely going to be recommending this one. I’ll be interested to see if Roe will have future works to check out. A List of Cages reignited my interest in hard-hitting, meaningful YA stories–which is great because today I’m starting Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give.

Further recommendations:

  1. Emma Donoghue’s Room is an adult book with a young child narrator that makes the story accessible for a wide range of readers (read: it’s an adult book that may interest YA readers). If you’re touched by Julian’s struggles and the possibility of real-life similar cases, then Room is a good choice for a next read. In this one, a woman and her young son are imprisoned in Room, a small, windowless, sound-proof shed where their captor has held them hostage for years. The book covers a plot for escape and justice.
  2. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell is a YA book about a teen girl with an abusive stepdad and a slough of other difficulties (poverty, bullying, many young siblings to take care of), trying to make her way through a new public school. This is another great story about friendship (and romance), and kids fighting horrible situations and unfit guardians.

Coming up next: I’m just finishing Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which makes a great summer read. It’s about a 59 year-old man who’s angry at the world and everyone in it, with a past full of grand and painful stories and a future full of unexpected friends–and a mangy cat. It’s humorous and emotional, light enough to read at the beach but heavy enough to take seriously.

What type of book is your perfect summer read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant