Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi

Down and Across

Rating: ★★★★1/2

Genre: Fiction, YA lit

Synopsis: Scott Ferdowsi just needs a little grit in his life.  A little grit, and that’ll set him up for following through with all of his wants, dreams, and desires.  Unfortunately, that requires him travelling up to Washington DC in secret while his parents are away.  But while on the bus up north, he meets Fiora Buchanan, and his two-day trip turns into something a lot longer.

Review: A lot of things really pulled me to this book, and I’d be lying if I said that the cover and title weren’t part of it.  I mean, a book that made use of crosswords as a metaphor?  Sign me up.  Also, please, teach me how to do crosswords because I am very bad at them.  But, in terms of crosswords, I learned a whole heck of a lot!

I also really loved this book a whole heck of a lot.  I love Scott/Saaket and his honest to god relatability (I mean…not having enough grit??  Not knowing what you want to do with your life?? Mood).  And even more, I love that Fiora doesn’t turn into the manic pixie dream girl trope–she has her own issues that don’t involve Scott, and even though she’s mystifying and captivating, Scott resists falling in love with her because hey, he’s not even supposed to be up in DC for all that long anyways.

Even more, I love the variety of characters in this book from sexualities, ethnicities, gender, and so forth.  It was just utterly refreshing to see a book actually reflect not only college communities, but city communities as well.  Overall, this is just a great book, and a great read for a high school senior, or anyone who’s not sure of what they want to do with their lives.

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Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Coraline

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Fiction, middle grade fiction, horror

Medium: Hardcover

Synopsis: Just before the school year starts, Coraline and her family move into a new house.  There, everything seems a little left of plum, especially the little door that leads to a brick wall.  Coraline has a feeling that there’s something behind there, and whatever it is, it’s not good.

Review: This is my second time reading this, and I think the time spanning between comes to around 10 years?  Both times, I read this in one sitting.  That’s how good this is.  My class and I read this for our psychoanalysis week in our critical theory class, and it’s obvious why.  Not only does this book deal with doppelgangers, but mirrors and coming of age themes as well.

This book…just, gosh.  I’ll try to put my love for it in coherent words.  First of all, it’s a great coming of age story.  Second of all, it easily combines my love for middle grade books and the horror genre.  It’s creepy, it’s fun, it’s exciting.  Coraline’s world and Other World have so much intrigue.  Well, most the Other World.  But it’s also the one that’s the eeriest, and for good cause.

The Other Mother is probably one of my favorite villains of all time, and those of y’all who know me personally probably know how much I love my lady villains.  I mean, it’s as the cat says in Coraline, paraphrased of course–does she want to love you or eat you?  And those of you who know me personally can also attest to how much I love cannibal villains…(those of you who don’t know me, please, I’m a normal person, I promise!!!).

Overall, I just love the sense of taking control over one’s life and reconciling individuality with dependency, and learning how to save yourself when all odds are against you.  It’s wonderful, ingenious, and perfect for young girls who are learning their way in this world.

The Marbury Lens by Andrew Smith

The Marbury Lens

Rating: ★★★

Genre: Fiction, speculative fiction

Medium: Paperback

Synopsis: Jack and his best friend are about to go on the trip of a lifetime to England.  But when Jack arrives, a man named Henry spots him and claims he’s always known him.  The problem is that Jack has no idea who this man is.  However, Henry leaves behind a pair of purple glasses, which Jack discovers leads him to an alternate universe called Marbury, where war is rampant and his best friend is trying to kill him.

Review: Well…this was a book I read.  I was at first excited to read this, because it looked like something I wouldn’t normally read, and I like branching out, but I think if it wasn’t for the class I had to read this for, I probably would have trusted my instincts.  Not to be that person, but…this book was so clearly written by a man.  I’m sure Andrew Smith is a nice person, but this book was so difficult to get through that many of my classmates didn’t even bother to finish it.

Of course, that might have been because of the amount of rape and molestation and murder that happens in the first fifty pages.  My problem isn’t necessarily with those happening in a book–if I had more time, I’d go into my feelings about putting trauma into a book–but my problem is that this trauma seemed to be there simply to be there.  It wasn’t to show how Jack was coping with what had happened to him, or to show how he has PTSD or other trauma related syndrome.  It just…was there.  And I got the feeling that what happened with Horvath, his assaulter was supposed to lead to some sort of explanation, possibly one having to do with Marbury (especially since Jack thinks throughout the book that Horvath did something to his brain), but the trail just leads to nowhere.  And the airplane scene?  I mean…at least the Horvath thing was trying to go somewhere.

However, there were some things I did like about this book.  Namely, the switch between first and third preson.  There’s something about switching so violently between points of view that creates a jarring effect (and that jarring effect is perfect given that Jack so constantly switches between our world and Marbury).  I also really loved the friendship between Jack and his best friend (even if it was rife with homophobia……….).

This actually leads me to the romances in this book.  I think this book takes place over the course of maybe…two weeks to a month?  And yet both of the boys have found some English hottie and have fallen irrevocably in love with them.  And vice versa.  Which, okay, you’re young, you have lots of feelings…except the women in this book are just sortof…there.  They aren’t even in Marbury?  They were just very flat, and I really wanted to know more about them, especially as they’ve fallen in love hard with Jack, who is not only traumatized but addicted to going to Marbury.  That’s not easy, yo.

Okay, I’ve put off the main part of this review for too long.  Marbury.  What is it?   We just don’t know.  It’s an alternate/parallel universe where everyone has doubles (except for the ladies, apparently), and Jack simultaneously knows nothing and everything about it.  There’s also ghosts?  And a war.  And huge bugs.  And everyone’s scrambling and struggling to survive.  And also, there’s no explanation.  Possibly, the explanation lies with Horvath.  Probably not, though.  I spent the whole book just being like, okay, we’re gonna find something out–Horvath totally did something to Jack’s brain and maybe Marbury is a coping/dissociation mechanism?  Except that doesn’t get explained.  So maybe Marbury is real?  Slightly more possible.  But the history within Marbury?  I have no idea.

Too much is left to speculation in this book.  I recognize that this is a series, and that more will likely be explained in the later books, so if this is something that actually sounds interesting to you, please tell me if anything does actually get explained.  I really wanted to like this book.  But I just couldn’t.  Alas.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

The Gentleman's Guide

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: LGBT fiction, adventure tale, historical fiction

Medium: Hardcover

Synopsis: Monty’s about to go on a grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy, and his little sister Felicity (that is, until he can drop her off at school and be done with her for the year).  But once in Versailles, he steals a trinket box out of pettiness–but that box holds something of vast importance inside.  Whilst being chased by paid thugs, pirates, and bureaucrats, he also deals with not only his father’s disapproval, but his growing feelings towards Percy.

Review: My coworker/manager wrote this book, and it was all the rage, so clearly I had to buy it and pester her for some autographs.  And it was one of the best books I’ve read this year.  Granted, it’s still January, but here’s the thing: I bought two copies (one for me, one for my good friend in Oregon) and we had a miniature book club that spanned thousands of miles.  3,085.1 miles, to be exact.  That’s how great this book was.

This book did not disappoint.  From the beginning, Lee’s voice shines through, making it a quick and pleasant read, and her sense of historical accuracy truly makes this book a worthwhile read.  In fact, after the novel finishes, Lee provides bits of her research for further reading about the time period across Europe!

But really, where to begin?  Shall I begin that this is a wonderful LGBT book?  Or that there’s huge amounts of representation across race, gender, and ability?  Or possibly, I should begin with the fact that this book makes me long for an adventure of my own, and for the adventure I’ve already had?  Or even with the fact that I gripped this book in my clutches and felt pained when I had to stop reading it so I didn’t miss my stop on the metro?

Certainly, there are plenty of other astounding reviews out there that show exactly why you should read this book.  But here’s one more: we received copies upon copies of this book at my old bookstore, and we sold out of them as quickly as we received them.  That’s how wonderful this book is.  That’s how you know that Lee does an incredible job with historical accuracy and in regards to her gay main characters.  The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice in Virtue is well with your time.

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins

This Will Be My Undoing

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Nonfiction, memoir

Medium: Paperback, ARC

Synopsis: Morgan Jerkins discusses Beyonce, Sailor Moon, intersectionality, and what it means to exist as herself in United States and international society.

Review: If there is a book that should be required reading for this year, This Will Be My Undoing is it.  Her words ring out with truth, and they are poetic.  For the first half of this book, I was unfortunate enough to not have a pen with me, so now half of the book is underlined and annotated and the other half isn’t.  But I suppose that just means I should read it again…

Morgan Jerkins is a twenty-something who can speak a multitude of languages and has visited many countries, all the while forging a career for herself.  Though it hasn’t been easy–being a black woman surely has brought her some disadvantages from the start.

As a white woman myself, I find this book to be immensely important.  Not only does it help me reinforce me deconstructing the anti-black and misogynistic narratives with which I’ve been socialized, but it has taught me so much more than I could have ever hoped.  This book is filled with essays, and letters, and rules, and each piece makes me wonder how it can be that Jerkins is only twenty-something, for she has the most incredible mastery of language that I’ve seen in my generation.

This book is something to behold, and it’s another thing to hold it in your hands.  It is timely, it is important, it is essential.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

The Dangerous Art of Blending In

Rating: ★★★★

Genre: YA fiction, G fiction

Medium: Paperback, ARC

Synopsis: Evan comes from a traditional Greek family.  To everyone on the outside, his father is a hardworking man and his mother is a wonderful housewife.  But to Evan, they’re a little like captors.  He’s gay, and they think he has a demon in him.  So what’s Evan to do?  Especially after his best friend comes out and his first fling visits him from across the country?

Review: This book was an interesting romp!  I learned a little bit about Greek culture (especially Greek-American culture) and reaffirmed how toxic parenting can have horrific effects on children–especially when there’s a ‘supportive parent’ who simply sits back and doesn’t do anything to help.

Overall, this is a teen love story where the obstacle in the way is straight up homophobia–the deadly kind.  Though rife with lots of abuse (both physical and emotional), it does a good job of portraying just what kind of behavior is unacceptable.

I ultimately found myself rooting for Evan and his dreams, even when he didn’t have the strength to do that himself.  I wanted him to be happy, and it’s that kind of connection to the main character that reinforced my interest in the book and in Evan’s journey.

The Milk Lady of Bangalore by Shoba Narayan

The Milk Lady of Bangalore

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: Nonfiction

Medium: Paperback, ARC

Synopsis: When Shoba Narayan and her husband step into their new Indian apartment building, they’re surprised to see a cow in the elevator.  And thus sets of a turn of events that leads Narayan to discover the science and spirit behind cow’s milk, all with the help of the milk lady of Bangalore.

Review: I didn’t expect to love this book so much or learn that much about milk from it.  Not to mention, of course, the way India as a whole tends to treat cows, and why, and what they like to do not only with the milk, but urine and feces as well.  Talk about versatile functionality!

Written with Narayan’s journalistic expertise, this book truly makes India come to life.  Its social groupings, expectations, and lifestyle all converge to create a colorful picture that’s smattered across the board with cows.

And even better, even though this is a memoir-esque journalistic nonfiction book, Narayan provides so many sources and recommended readings to further the reader’s knowledge about cows, milk, and India.  I’ll definitely be taking a look at those!

I just think this book is incredible, fun, and informative all in one go.  I absolutely love all of the people Narayan interacts with, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about how to go about purchasing a cow and donating a cow and how that all ties into India’s respect culture.  I’ve done nothing in the past week or so except rave about this book to my coworkers at my cafe, and I just hope that anyone I recommend this to (everyone) will find this book as intriguing as I did.

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi

A Land of Permanent Goodbyes

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: YA Lit

Medium: Paperback, ARC

Synopsis: Tareq loves his family more than anything.  But when an airstrike hits his house, what’s left of his family–his father and little sister–refuses to stay in Syria any longer, and decide to make the dangerous trek to Turkey.  Unfortunately, Turkey doesn’t hold much for Syrians, so Tareq must figure out how to get to Greece and begin saving up money to bring the rest of his family with him.

Review: What an astounding book.  Though not too violent at its core, this book certainly displays an affinity for discussing the aftereffects and reactions to the violence which humanity commits on a day to day basis–namely, in this book, terrorism caused by Daesh in Syria.  As we begin to follow Tareq, we are also allowed insight not only into what used to be his everyday life, but into the horrors he now bears witness to and the fears others harbor towards him.  Nuanced would be the word I’d use to describe this book.

I’ll be honest.  I live a pretty comfortable life.  Even cases of domestic terrorism are pretty far away from me, which allows me to be unsettled but still feeling rather safe in where I am.  Everything I know about refugees and fleeing one’s home is theoretical, and likely through the lens of a white journalist.  This is why this book felt so important to me–because it questioned what I knew, what I didn’t know, and taught me more than I thought it could.

Because I don’t know the author, I can’t definitively say what her goal was in writing this book.  But if it was to enlighten white readers about the horrors refugees must face, she succeeded.  If it was to delve into a character’s fears and anxieties about being forced to flee from the place he’s always know, she succeeded.  If it was to critique governments and charities and relief systems’ reactions to terrorism, she succeeded.  This book did a lot of things, and it succeeded.

Another thing I think it succeeded in was the position of the narrator, which is destiny.  I think it’s a wonderful call to The Book Thief, and it works so well.   The narration wonderfully navigates the fine line between “you can’t outrun destiny” and “nothing’s set in stone.”

Overall, this book is a wonderful, beautiful book that does not shy away from the violence and horrors one must endure due to terrorism.  If you enjoy or are interested in learning about other cultures, human trafficking, homelessness, and hard or unpresent goodbyes, this book is definitely for you.

Woman at 1000 Degrees by Hallgrímur Helgason

Woman at 1000 Degrees

Rating: ★★★★1/2

Genre: Fiction

Medium: Paperback, ARC

Synopsis: Herra is 81 years old, and ready for death.  So ready, that she’s made herself a cremation appointment.  But while she waits for her proposed time to come, all she can do is rest in her rented garage and think about her life.  And what a tumultuous life it has been.

Review: Very rarely do I enjoy a man writing about a women’s experiences (especially those involving rape), but Helgason does quite a formidable job.  Maybe it’s the fact that I didn’t live through World War II, or that I’m not an Icelandic woman, but his voice was certainly refreshing.  I mean, first of all, I can’t remember the last time that I read a book about an elderly person.  Maybe never?  Second of all, Herra is blunt and brunt and rude.  And that’s something women rarely get to be, even in literature.

And, something I don’t see as often is women living to their greatest potential.  Herra did so much–and was forced to do so much–so it’s completely understandable why she takes upon such a harsh tone through Helgason’s writing.  She falls in love multiple times, gets pregnant multiple times, is forced to flee multiple times–all while being accompanied by her father’s hand grenade.

There’s also some great passages about being a woman within this book that I so wish I had underlined.  Like I said before, I was a little wary about this being written by a man, but wow.  I think he understands how much and how often women sacrifice themselves in order to appease men (whether on a personal level or a political, global level).

Overall, this book was so incredibly enjoyable and interesting that I had a hard time putting it down.  I definitely recommend this to those who like fiction, biographies, and WWII literature.

Truly Devious #1 by Maureen Johnson

Truly Devious

Rating: ★★★★★

Genre: YA lit, mystery

Medium: Paperback, ARC

Synopsis: Stevie has always been interested in true crime and the Ellingham murders from 70 years ago.  So when she has the chance to attend Ellingham Academy and see the rooms where Truly Devious wreaked havoc in person, it’s a dream come true.  That is, until another murder happens and Truly Devious appears again…

Review: Oh my lord, this was so good and I can’t believe that I a) have to wait for this to be published, and b) have to wait for the sequel.  Because there’s so much left unsolved and I have theories!!!!  Not that I’m actually good at solving mysteries, but I wanna see if I was at least on the right track and now I probably have to wait another year…but that ending though.  The perfect amount of not-enough-closure and kinda-closure and plot twists!!!

But let me start with the beginning.  I love Stevie, because she reminds me of who I was when I watched Sherlock religiously.  Like, I honestly feel so protective of her and will likely defend her if anyone talks shit about her because now being incredibly observant and detective-like is uncool now that Sherlock season 4 is out (but let’s get real–if any of y’all watched Sherlock and was one of those kinds of fangirls, this’ll be a blast from a few years past.  And it’s great).  She’s a great mixture of being a teenager who’s tired of the expectations her parents put on her, a wannabe detective, and just…your average teenager who makes out with someone after stumbling upon a dead body.  I love her so much.

And the secondary characters are just as incredible and three dimensional (and kinda gay so…that’s a win).  All of the professors and counselors and security guards all have something to say because they’re adults (so of course they have something to say) but it’s always well-intended and aligns extremely well with their characterization.

And I’d be a bad reviewer if I didn’t mention the mystery of Truly Devious, a kidnapper and murderer from the 1930s who makes a reappearance.  The mystery is a cold case, and now that it’s back in action–is it the same Truly Devious, or is it a copycat?  And what was the motive between the kidnapping and the murders?  Stevie’s read and watched every possible thing about the crime, and now that she has access to the actual rooms and documents, she’s persistent about revealing the killer.  Of course, now we have to wait for the sequel at least.  I think the mystery portion of the book is written extremely well, because I have absolutely no clue who it could be (if it is one of the characters featured in the first book).  Granted, I’m bad at solving mysteries, but nothing seems too obvious, and even the ending leaves a little to be questioned…

Anyways.  This is a great book, and I hope you all have the time to read it, especially if you love mysteries and YA lit.