Book Review

Book Review: The Universe is Expanding and So Am I

Long time, no see! Let’s not do that again. After some time off from writing, I am back at it again –

(at the worst possible time, admittedly. I’ll be hanging out at BookExpo all week. Whoops.)

– With some exciting books to review, thanks to NetGalley (and my overwhelming stack of books that I’ve never gotten to, ANYWAY.)

Let’s start with the much awaited sequel to a classic.

imagesThe Universe is Expanding
and So Am I

By Carolyn Mackler
Release Date: May 29, 2018
Bloomsbury YA
ISBN 9781681195995
Price: $17.99 (USD)

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Thank you to NetGalley and Bloomsbury YA for providing me with a free ARC in exchange for an honest review.

*Trigger Warning: Sexual abuse, rape.

 

I first discovered this series as a a young high school student. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, released in 2003,  was legendary for me and my friends. I can only assume, though, that it meant a little more to me. I understood the character of Virginia Shreves. I knew what it was like to walk the halls and feel heavier than everyone else. To me, she was an idol and I found myself returning to the book more times than I can count. Virginia gave me strength. If she could ignore the world and be her best self, so could I.

Imagine my utter joy when I found out that there would be a sequel. Fifteen years later! A sequel!

The Synopsis:

High school sophomore Virginia Shreves is heading into a turbulent time. She’s fallen out of like with boyfriend Froggy, her best friend is on the opposite coast and often without cell service, her favorite kickboxing class has been taken over by her arch nemesis, and worst of all, her brother Byron has been accused of sexually harassing a fellow student at Columbia. Her one saving grace is Sebastian, an adorable, clumsy artist she meets while on a conquest for bagels. But Virginia soon discovers that even her relationship with Sebastian is complicated. Can love overcome all?

Good Things:

I haven’t picked up the first book in this series in ages. But I didn’t have to. The story came flooding back and I remembered why I loved Carolyn Mackler’s writing. She’s funny. Her characters are filled with empathy and you find yourself glued to every page. I picked this book up on a Saturday. I abandoned a different book to finish it within the day. I needed to find out what happened and as a result, I flew through the pages of this book.

As always in these books, there’s fat girl representation (much appreciated, Carolyn Mackler). There’s LGBTQ+ representation in this novel, which I was happy to see. And I enjoy Mackler’s ever-present message that people are more complex than they originally seem. Mackler’s writing is deep, important, and soulful. I remembered at once just how much I loved her storytelling and the chronicles of Virginia Shreves.

Not-So-Good Things:

As much as I loved how this book was written, I couldn’t forgive one very important aspect of it:

The victim of sexual abuse was not painted in a very fair way, nor did she receive a fair ending.

I get it. Byron is Virginia’s brother. We’re sympathetic to Virginia so we are naturally sympathetic to Byron. But what about the girl he assaulted? She’s often painted throughout the book as someone who is mentally unstable. She’s not “dealing with her abuse well” and so she takes Byron to court.

That, to me, makes it sound like she’s getting revenge. Not that she’s trying to heal.

And honestly [major spoiler alert], I find it very unfair and very irresponsible to allow Sebastian and Virginia to end up happily together at the close of the novel. Sebastian is the brother of Annie Mills, the young woman Virginia’s brother assaulted. To force these two families together and to force Annie to relieve her abuse at every encounter is simply cruel.

I appreciate that this is a different story. This is Virginia’s experience as someone innocent who is unfortunately tied to someone very much not innocent. And I appreciate that at the end of the novel, her family admits that their perfect son and brother did do something cruel. It’s a tricky topic to cover and I do think that Mackler was close to being successful with such a story.

Was this a happy ending? No, not to me. I felt uncomfortable at the ending, especially with all the news surrounding the #MeToo movement in recent months. We want victims of abuse to feel comfortable naming their assaulters and finding justice. Instead, in this book, Annie’s abuse was often swept under the rug in favor of a more appealing story. She was told to get over it for the sake of a summer fling.

Unfortunately, that was unforgivable to me.

In Summation:

I loved this book the entire way through. However, I couldn’t find peace with its ending. In this era of female triumph where women are finally being heard, we can’t tell girls that their assault is less important than a teenage romance.

(That isn’t to downplay the importance of teenage romance. I believe in it above all others. But when compared to something as severe and traumatizing as sexual abuse, sexual abuse takes precedence.)

I give this book 3 stars. It truly is written beautifully. The final message, though, is not as poignant and powerful as it should be. Instead, I can see it being harmful to the readers who have lived through abuse in the same way Annie Mills did. There was a neat way to wrap up this story and I wonder if it’ll come in the form of a sequel. In this volume, however, I didn’t get the peaceful and moral ending I was hoping for.

For any of you at BookExpo, I’ll see you there! It’s my first one so I’m trying not to have a panic attack over it. But I’ve been promised free books so…a girl’s gotta love that. Stay tuned! If I survive BookExpo, I’ll have a fun recipe from The Universe is Expanding and So Am I. As a native New Yorker, I can’t resist giving it a try.

Book Review

Book Review: When the Moon Was Ours

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When the Moon Was Ours
Written by Anna-Marie McLemore
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
Page Count: 288 pages.
Tea Pairing: This Caramel Cream tea from Adagio perfectly matches Miel’s favorite cookie called alfajores, a Latin-American dulce de leche concoction. Want a recipe? Check it out here!

No one in town really knows a lot about Miel and Sam. Miel has the ability to grow roses from her wrists and some say she was born from a water tower. Sam paints moons and hangs them from trees to illuminate the neighborhood. No one knows where he and his mother originated from or why they left.

Despite all of this, they aren’t the most mysterious ones in town. The Bonner sisters hold a strange sort of magic – they’re able to enchant and lure any man they want. Except for Sam. When Miel is threatened and blackmailed, will she protect herself or the boy she loves?

4.5

Anna Marie McLemore’s book, When the Moon Was Ours, is such a beautiful and important text. Written poetically and with a lot of heart, this story gives us something I have shamefully never seen before in a novel, young adult or otherwise:

A character who is trans.

I don’t want to give too much away. I think there’s so much magic to this book that needs to be discovered by the reader. But there are teens that feel alone in their sexuality and I think it’s our closest form of magic that we have books like this available to help heal wounded readers.

(This book isn’t getting enough love, you guys. I will scream it from rooftops if I must.)

There are other lovely things in this book:

  • When the Moon Was Ours points out that those things that make us different, those strange metaphorical roses growing from our wrists, are the same things that make us beautiful.
  • It lets us know that even those people we revere as perfect are not so flawless. And it informs us that even they are struggling.
  • This book offers us a magical world that seems oddly real and familiar at the same time.
  • It features a cast of characters who are POC, something we don’t see nearly enough.

I found the end to be a little forced, hence the 4.5 star rating, but other than that? I was madly in love with this book. It was so clever and so profound and I’ll be returning to this book again, I guarantee.

What’s everyone reading? Leave it here! I’m going to be doing a throwback to Fangirl this week (complete with recipe!) and then I’ll be diving into a couple of ARCs that I’ve received.

(Including ARCs about vampires, teens with Asperger’s, and a meditation book for middle graders. And maybe John Green’s new book if I have the nerve.)

Keep reading!

Book Recipe

Bookish Recipe: Alfajores

Finding that memory was as bright as catching trees bursting into bloom. It was a memory from when Miel was barely old enough to make them. After that, she would turn three, and four, and the roses would come, and they would take everything. But she could hold on to this, her hands and Leandro’s pale with sugar and flour.

Alfajores de nieve, coated in powdered sugar so each looked made of winter.

She didn’t have Leandro anymore, or his hands, smooth and dark as finished wood. But she had Sam, this boy and his brown hands.

Miel pulled her eyes from the knotted carpet, and looked up at Sam. “I think I am hungry.”

“Yeah?” Sam’s smile was slight, but without caution. “Anything in particular?”

Miel pushed herself up on her hands, her body stiff as if she’d slept on it wrong. “Have I ever shown you how to make alfajores?”

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I can say with absolute confidence that Miel had every right to believe these little bites of winter would cheer her up. Alfajores, small confections from Latin America, are the perfect bite of butter, confectioners sugar, and dulce de leche. They’re versatile, fun, and downright adorable.

I found the recipe here over at Chowhound and though I was nervous I would mess up somewhere, they’re a pretty simple treat to recreate. Some tips!

  • Make them your own. I used a 2-inch fluted cookie/biscuit cutter and mini star cookie cutters in the middle.
  • The 2-inch cookie cutters were a good idea because the recipe says it makes 12 cookies. I ended up with 24?
  • The dough, when you roll it out after it’s been chilled, will be crumbly. Don’t fear! Add a little flour and be patient. It will mold back together.
  • Consider adding some lemon zest to your dough. It will complement the flavors wonderfully.
  • The flavor of brandy is very subtle. I bought a bottle just for this recipe but I’m sure you could substitute another liquor if you don’t have any.
  • You might want to invest in rolling pin rings like these from Amazon to ensure a more even dough. You’ll get an even bake and a more successful cookie if the dough is rolled out to the same thickness.

Those are really all the tips you need! These will make another appearance in my home. If you’re having a sad day? Follow Miel’s advice, fire up your oven, and start kneading that dough. These will cheer you up in no time flat.

My review of When the Moon Was Ours is coming soon. I know, I’ve been saying this for a while now. But when I write the review, it’ll truly be over. And I’m sad about that.

Keep reading!

Essay, Ramblings

The Hero Complex and the Importance of Representation in Young Adult Literature

Whilst I make my way through some good reads (and reread some old favorites sorry couldn’t resist whoops), I’ve got some thoughts.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism lately about the hero protagonist in young adult literature. While I want to say that I get the criticism, I don’t. Sure, we need to celebrate our run-of-the-mill characters. Our average-Joes. I’m not saying they should be ignored.

What I am saying, however, is that all teenagers and all young adults and, honestly, all humans are the heroes of their own stories. Why can’t they be written as such?

There are young people in the world *raises hand* who suffer from mental illness. We struggle with our minds. Like Jacob wrestling the angel, we are in constant battle for control over something that should be so simple — our brains and our own thoughts. And yet, we have unpredictable moments of weakness. We have moments where we hear these voices that tell us how unimportant we are. How replaceable we are. How burdensome we are.

And then there are books. I think of how there are books in this world and I sigh with relief. I can’t begin to list how many books have saved me. Book lovers abuse books so often, too! We let them sit on our shelves for years and years and years to collect dust and wait and pine for us. Like a loyal dog, they’re still there waiting for us, even after we’ve cheated on them with newer, prettier, thicker tomes.

Okay, Lauren. We get it. What does this have to do with heroic protagonists?

Ever go to a Harry Potter midnight premiere? (Aww, remember those days?) People dressed up. People carried wands. People proudly wore their house colors and showed off their collected merchandise. And every single nerd attending that movie and/or book release felt immortal. We felt powerful. We felt brave. And we understood how valuable we were.

Harry Potter was the Boy Who Lived. He was special at Hogwarts. It didn’t matter that he lived under the stairs in his muggle world. Here, in this new and magical place, he was revered and irreplaceable.

And so too are the young people reading these books.

Being a young adult is hard enough. You’re stuck between being an adult and being a kid and so others either treat you as though you have to carry the world on your shoulders or as though you’re the one who needs to be carried. Add a feeling of invisibility, a sense of insignificance, and the rising diagnoses of mental illness and it’s clear to see that students are in need of some reassurance and comfort.

While I applaud students who seek out literature that is beyond their reading level (I was totes that kid. Let’s face it, I’m still that kid.), they should have an option to read — well, whatever they want, really. I’m sure students can find heroes in classic literature. I remember feeling inspired by Jane Eyre and her independence as a young(er) reader. It’s possible.

But imagine a reader picking up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe after they’ve begun to identify as someone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Imagine a reader who has only seen white heroes in the media finally finding someone who looks like her in The Wrath and the Dawn series.

Imagine a reader feeling incredibly anxious and depressed due to recent events involving police brutality and coming across The Hate U Give.

The protagonists don’t even need to be wand-wielding wizards to be the heroes of their stories (although, have you read El DeafoNot enough people are talking about a graphic novel about the beloved deaf superhero). And when students begin to see books as a mirror into their own worlds, they respond in a far more positive way. These books stick. And when books stick, we create better readers.

Let’s create a world of better, more inclusive books.

All right. Enough of my ramblings. I’ve been under the weather the past couple of days so expect a lot of tea reviews this weekend.

Like, a lot.

Keep reading, my loves.

Book Review

Book Review: Tash Hearts Tolstoy

 

DSC_0774Tash Hearts Tolstoy
Written by Kathryn Ormsbee
Published by Simon & Schuster
Page count: 367
Tea Pairing: Yerba Mate for those times when Tash needed a meditative moment. New to yerba mate? Try this sampler from Adagio to find your favorite. And don’t forget – there’s a honey sale going on as we speak!

Natasha Zelenka, nicknamed Tash, is an aspiring film creator. With the help of her best friends and some willing novice actors, Tash produces a webseries titled Unhappy Families based off of one of her favorite Tolstoy novels. It’s her dreamto go to Vanderbilt and study filmmaking. And when her webseries gets a shout-out from a popular YouTuber and a nomination for a Golden Tuba Award, her dream is likely to become a reality.

Even better, her nomination means she has a chance at meeting fellow YouTuber Thom Causer, a boy she’s been flirting with since they discovered each other’s channels. But can she keep her friends as her focus shifts to her successful webseries? And how will Thom react to her confession that she’s a romantic asexual?

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I’ll be honest, this book is a little slow in the beginning. It took a while for me to get into it.

(Which, after the fact, I found a little cute because you know what other books take a while to get into? Literally anything Tolstoy has ever written.)

But once you get into it, there are so many beautiful things about this book:

  • An asexual protagonist. Let me repeat for the people in the back. An asexual protagonist. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book with an asexual protagonist and her story is so accurate. Her confession of her sexuality (confessionS, actually, as people who come out never really come out once) is often met with confusion and misunderstanding and sometimes even anger. But we have something wonderful here. Tash sticks to her guns and never once sacrifices her happiness or her comfort for a boy. She knows who she is, she spent a long time getting there, and her message is that you should never sacrifice yourself for someone else. Such a great message for teens.
  • The theme of friendship and family. Ormsbee has every reason to let Tash pursue her dreams and leave behind everyone she knows, especially when things in her family grow tense. But Ormsbee lets her readers know that it’s so much braver and better to stick with the ones you love.
  • The message that our idols aren’t perfect. Yeah, Tash hearts Tolstoy (it’s right there in the title). But one of my favorite scenes includes her admitting that in all actuality, Tolstoy was a pretty crappy guy. Perhaps that’s why I had trouble getting into this book. Tash would wax poetic about how amazing Tolstoy was and I knew better. That scene was such a moment of redemption for me and it doubles as a great message for readers.

Ormsbee’s book truly surprised me in the end. I’m going to miss this one. And I really wish there was a Tea Time with Tash vlog because I would totally watch it.

(Let’s face it, I’d watch Unhappy Families too.)

Give this one a try. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Read on, my friends!