I Won a Couple of Goodreads Giveaways: John Coy’s Gap Life & Sara Lovestam’s Wonderful Feels Like This (2017 Reading Books #31 & 32)

I’ve become a rabid fan of Goodreads giveaways, entering any and all that are of interest me, although recently I’ve limited it to just YA novels. Still, I check and enter giveaways almost daily. And I was even lucky enough to win a couple of books a month ago. Sara … Continue reading

On the Fictional Corner of Neuro-Diverse and Easy Life: Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s (2017 Reading Book #29)

I have a vague memory from years ago of my mom telling me about this book after listening to some program on NPR that mentioned it. Ever since then, it was on my mental to-read list. In January, it was discounted on the iBooks store and I decided to read it.

For many, Counting by 7s is considered a novel with a protagonist who is on the autism spectrum. Or, at least, neuro-diverse (ND) to some extent. The author claims she just wanted to write a story about a gifted child. While “gifted” might be a more apt title for Willow, I did read this book under the assumption that Willow was autistic, or, at least, meant to be read as autistic. And therein lies my disappointment with this novel: Willow’s neuro-diversity poses no major problems for her throughout the course of this conflict-light story.

Willow is a really fun character who has many unique interests, but still manages to find a way to connect with others, both teens and adults. Despite suddenly losing her parents in a car crash, she exhibits minimal signs of grief and just sort of shuts down her emotions. Most convenient of all, a group of misfit adults go out of their way to take care of her and be her guardians, preventing her from ending up in the system. While her savant-like intellect paints her clearly into the stereotypical portrait of an Autism Spectrum Disorder,

While her savant-like intellect paints her clearly into the stereotypical portrait of an Autism Spectrum Disorder, the often frustrating and more challenging behaviors associated with this diagnosis are completely absent. Never once does she throw a tantrum or become incredibly upset over the immense amounts of change thrown her way. No repetitive motions or self-injury. Her interests and obsessions (like counting by 7s) are something she can stop doing at will or not bring up when she recognizes it’s not socially appropriate. Willow simply exists as a perfect, brilliant child, and to me, that seems like she loses her humanity; she’s a fairytale, not a real girl with an ND diagnosis trying to live through significant tragedies and changes.

And the easiness with which she lives her ND life removes a lot of potential conflict from a story that really doesn’t have a lot of conflict to begin with. So my expectations didn’t match what I read. It just didn’t have the emotional intensity and discussion of the issues that I expected from a novel that has an ND protagonist (especially compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close).

But there were some redeeming qualities to this novel that made is an easy and enjoyable read. I love the variety of characters and perspectives. Everyone was so different from each other, but I liked them all and I enjoyed seeing them come together and form a sort of quasi-family.

The book is shelved as Middle Grade, so maybe that’s partly why this story is so light on conflict. Yet, Children’s and Middle Grade doesn’t shy away from the hard issues. Death and being different are very popular topics in this category, but this novel’s discussion of both falls short of the standards I personally hold.

In Summary:

Title(s): Counting by 7s

Author(s): Holly Goldberg Sloan

Overall Rating: 3/5

Genre: Middle Grade

Category: Fiction

Format Accessed: iBook

Always Relevant: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series (2017 Reading Books #21-28)

There’s never a bad time to re-read Harry Potter. It’s been something I’ve been meaning to do since I last re-read them when I was in high school. Plus, it was a necessary precursor to reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. So I put the books on my 2017 to-read list and happily spent a large chunk of February returning to the wonderful world of wizarding.

The series definitely holds up reading them as an adult. Of course, I forgot that it takes nearly one hundred pages for Harry to get to Hogwarts in the first book (the movie covers those one hundred pages in maybe five minutes). And not every book spoke to me or had me on the edge of my seat as I knew how things were going to go. But it did give me the chance to notice some lovely things happening in the background. I really love Neville Longbottom’s arc, especially in the first book where there’s the question of whether or not he should have been sorted into Gryffindor. And there’s plenty of fun wizarding details that you don’t get in the movies that you can spend pages dwelling in in the books.

My favorites of the series are Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Chamber of Secrets always feels like a really good mystery novel. I remember as a kid dramatically reading aloud Tom Riddle’s rant toward the end of the book. Much like Chamber of Secrets, Goblet of Fire is non-stop action. What struck me most this time around was its discussion of international wizard relations (the Muslim Ban occurred while I was reading this, so it was incredibly timely). Half-Blood Prince felt like an on-going episode of Criminal Minds as Dumbledore and Harry explored memories related to Voldemort’s upbringing and evolution to his present form, and I think that subplot was incredibly important in understanding this villain and the choices he has made. Deathly Hallows is a great end to the series, but I especially loved learning all the wand lore and seeing its importance in the plot. If I were a witch, I would definitely study wand lore.

“We are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided. Lord Voldemort’s gift for spreading discord and enmity is very great. We can fight it only by showing an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. Differences of habit and language are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open.” —Albus Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

The only book that fell a little flat for me in the series as I re-read it was Prisoner of Azkaban. I think that’s largely because so much of that book’s tension comes from thinking Sirius Black is a Death Eater on the hunt to kill Harry. Knowing the plot and who all these characters really are sort of took away a lot of the drama of the novel. Likewise, it didn’t feel as intense and action-packed as Chamber of Secrets or Goblet of Fire. Still, it’s a great book and a wonderful piece of this seven book narrative.

Once I finished re-reading the seven Harry Potter books, I read Cursed Child for the first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I’d seen mixed reviews online. It was okay. It’s a play, so it’s not like reading a Harry Potter book. But I also think it would be SUPER COOL to see this play live and I want to know how some of the magic is done. I really liked the questions and issues at hand in the plot, but at times it felt like Harry Potter and his friends took over the story from their children (who it was really about). Likewise, some aspects of the plot were hard to believe and didn’t feel like they should be canon. I was also upset that Scorpius and Albus were only friends at the end as there was so much hugging going on between them that I couldn’t help but ship them. I just wanted to see some gay wizards!

All in all, it was great to step back into the wizarding world. I think I became even more of a Harry Potter fan reading it this time. I’m also eyeing those illustrated editions of Harry Potter that John Kay is doing. So stunning!

In Summary:

Title(s): Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (5/5), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (5/5), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (4/5), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (5/5), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (5/5), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (5/5), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (5/5), Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (3/5)

Author(s): J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child only), Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child only)

Overall Rating: 5/5

Genre: Children’s

Category: Fiction

Format Accessed: Paperback (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), Hardcover (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), eBook (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)

Additional Reading: “23 Harry Potter Quotes for Surviving the Trump Era”

A Perfect Binge-Read for a Long Weekend: Brit Bennett’s The Mothers (2017 Reading Book #20)

I’m always a little bit dubious of books that get a lot of acclaim. Maybe that’s unfair to the author or the book, but sometimes what garners a large fanbase isn’t always that fantastic (cough cough Fifty Shades of Gray cough cough). But I am super grateful that I did sit down with this book. This was another Christmas gift for my mom that I decided to get her on a whim. I wasn’t as sure about it as I was some of the other books. But she enjoyed it and liked how it approached the topic of abortion.

I, too, found it to be a beautifully written story that sucked me in from one page. It’s the kind of novel you might pick up at the airport or a random bookstore and then devour it over a weekend getaway or just a long weekend at home. The narrative voice was extremely striking and I loved all the angles the reader gets to explore this story from as well as all the time in these characters’ lives that we get to see.

I wouldn’t declare this book to be a soapbox for opinions on abortion, but I do think it is a good vehicle for opening up conversation about the issue. I think my mom liked it a lot because the novel came off a bit as pro-life, but I think that’s due more to the narrator’s bias/perspective than to any real message being delivered in the book. But this story isn’t innately a political one. Nor is it solely about the abortion. It’s just a really good story about the lives of several characters and how they intertwine over the years and the community surrounding them.

The voice and the amount of time covered reminds me a lot of Jon Pineda’s novel Apology. It’s definitely a literary novel and its tone feels a little more sophisticated than the standard beach read novel. But it’s hard not to get sucked in and I think it’s the perfect book to take along on a trip.

 

In Summary:

Title(s): The Mothers

Author(s): Brit Bennett

Overall Rating: 5/5

Genre: Adult

Category: Fiction

Format Accessed: Hardcover

Additional Reading: The Hollywood Reporter: “Kerry Washington, Warner Bros. to Adapt ‘The Mothers’

Mary Ann Shaffer’s The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2017 Reading Book #19)

I gave this book to my mom for Christmas after seeing it on a list of recommended books. Then my mom passed the book onto me with the highest praises. My mom loves BBC shows about historical events and small towns, and this book has so much of what she loves about those shows.

I, too, absolutely loved the variety of characters, the WWII history, and epistolary narrative style. I’m incredibly amazed by all the different subplots and characters and how each of them came through in their letters. It was hard to dislike any character, which also speaks highly of how the author constructed them. There were some truly gut-wrenching moments regarding what happened to a character during the war, and the emotional impact of it also speaks highly of the writing and plot in this book.

However, the novel did fall flat in a couple of areas for me. The main character, Juliet’s romance felt very tired, so I was glad that it didn’t completely overshadow the plot. Unfortunately, the romance did run over Juliet’s career aspirations at the end, so that the ending felt a little rushed and incomplete. My mom agreed that the ending felt a little too rushed.

Still, I think this is a great pleasure read for any die-hard BBC drama fan. There’s a lot to fall in love with in this book.

 

In Summary:

Title(s): The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Author(s): Mary Ann Shaffer

Overall Rating: 4/5

Genre: Historical

Category: Fiction

Format Accessed: Paperback

Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems (2017 Reading Book #18)

I am an absolute unabashed Jack Gilbert fangirl. He is one of my favorite poets of all time, and I’ve read and discussed his poems multiple times during my undergrad career. My love for Gilbert was so well known that at the induction ceremony to the Lit Honor Society, the final lines of Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” was assigned to me (every inductee is given several lines of poetry or literature that are chosen by a professor that best represents them). I cried when I had to read the lines aloud.

As a graduation gift to myself, I bought Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems. And almost two years later, I finally finished reading it. Prior to this, I had only read The Great Fires, which I think it’s Gilbert’s strongest collection and probably the best way to get into his poetry.

As a fan of Gilbert, I enjoyed seeing the entire scope of his career. But I think it would be a boring, endless read for someone who’s not already a fan of Gilbert and familiar with his poetry. This is definitely for someone who doesn’t mind reading some less than amazing poems–a similar endeavor to listening to a band’s demos (you have to really like them to be into hearing their unpolished performances).

If you’re interested in reading his poems (I highly recommend as his poems about love and grief are stunning), I will link several below.

In Summary:

Title(s): Collected Poems

Author(s): Jack Gilbert

Overall rating: 5/5

Genre: Poetry

Category: Poetry

Format Accessed: Paperback

Additional Reading: The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” “A Brief for the Defense,” “Failing and Flying

Romance for Teen Poets: Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things (2017 Reading Book #16)

Romance is often the biggest hurdles for me in a YA novel. So often it’s melodramatic, cliche, or full of totally not okay behaviors, and it ruins whatever else is going on in the novel (the stuff that probably drew me to the story in the first place). In the case of Julie Buxbaum’s Tell Me Three Things, the romance is a mixed bag. But that’s probably because I am almost a decade past the phase of teens swooning over boys who memorize modernist poets. As my friends pointed out to me, that’s EXACTLY what their sixteen-year-old selves would have LOVED. So maybe the crime isn’t in the romance but in the fact that I’m just not the right age or reader for this romance.

I also struggled with liking Jessie early on in the novel as she was very angry and her disgust/ outsider-ness toward her new school felt a little too Claire from The Clique series. But I think her initial hatred of them was part of her emotional/grief journey. And as time wore on and Jessie found some friends, I did find her to be a really likable character.

Besides my qualms about the romance in this novel, I found a lot to love. It’s coverage of losing a parent, the grief and major changes that come with it, and adapting to a blended family delivered some of the strongest parts of the novel. I really loved how complex her step-brother was and watching their relationship develop over the novel was wonderful and real. Jessie also had a few touching scenes with her dad that were well done.

I also liked the two female friends Jessie made. Their conversations and issues felt real and true to modern times. They weren’t just tired stock characters common to YA. Their discussion of relationships was especially wonderful and rang true to the conversations I see teens having online today.

While falling for an anonymous peer whom your corresponding with online is a popular plotline in YA, and is featured in some standout novels like Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda and Will Grayson, Will Grayson, this novel kept that trope feeling fresh and made it its own. I was delighted that it wasn’t obvious who her mysterious emailer was, and I liked seeing Jessie make a couple of wrong guesses. However, it did become rather obvious toward the end who it was, and their getting together felt a little drawn out.

This book was hard to put down and I read it in a matter of days. I think it’s a great book for a teen who’s dealing with major life changes in the wake of losing a parent, gaining new members of the family, or moving to a totally new place. Bookworms and sixteen-year-old poets will undoubtedly swoon over the inclusion of T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein in the romance. I think teens who often feel like outsiders will feel at home in this story and find friendship with Jessie as she adjusts to her new life.

 

In Summary:

Title(s): Tell Me Three Things

Author(s): Julie Buxbaum

Overall Rating: 4/5

Genre: YA

Category: Fiction

Format Accessed: iBook

Making Science Accessible & Enjoyable for All: Charlie McDonnell’s Fun Science (2017 Reading Book #16)

I grew up believing that there are two types of people: artsy people and sciencey people. Ne’er shall the two mix. But thanks to a liberal arts education and the Internet, it’s become quite clear that you can be into both art and science and that they are often complementary skills and interests. Since that realization, I’ve begun to leisurely learn and explore all that sciencey stuff that once seemed too far removed from my artsy soul.

This notion of science often being reserved only for scientists, that it is nothing more than classes you have to take in school is at the heart of Charlie McDonnell’s mission in Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe, and Why Science Is So Awesome. Charlie isn’t a scientist, but he LOVES science, and that’s all the motivation he needed to create a YouTube series, and now, book about a bunch of awesome sciencey things. He wants you to find science (and his book) awesome as well.

And it is awesome.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the humorous, illustrated, brightly colored pages. It was far from any science textbook I’d ever crossed paths with before. And it was far easier to get into and understand than any science class or textbook. Reading it didn’t feel like I’d somehow slipped past the SCIENTISTS ONLY sign into their little club, but that I was welcome to take a moment to understand the universe and body I live in. That I had a right to know and appreciate all this stuff that makes up our world and us. The book doesn’t talk down to you either; it looks you squarely in the eyes and says “Science is fun and it is for everyone.”

My only concern is that some of the humor in it may not stand the test of time as cultural references and technology will all become dated and irrelevant as time goes on. Likewise, this humor may not speak to everyone, especially adults who aren’t familiar with Internet culture. Still, this charming book is a delightful read and a great way for adolescents and adults to unthink science as a class or topic far beyond their comprehension.

If you’d like a taste of the book’s approach to science, Charlie McDonnell has a playlist of Fun Science videos, which are all adapted from his book.

 

In Summary:

Title(s): Fun Science: A Guide to Life, the Universe, and Why Science Is So Awesome

Author(s): Charlie McDonnell

Overall Rating: 5/5

Genre: Science

Category: Nonfiction

Formate Accessed: Hardcover

Additional Reading: Nylon interview with Charlie McDonnell about Fun Science

George Watsky’s How to Ruin Everything: Essays (2017 Reading Book #15)

I’ve been a longtime fan of spoken word poet, rapper, and writer George Watsky. In November 2014, I saw him in D.C. on his tour in support of his then recent release All You Can Do. So when I heard that he had an essay collection out, I was pumped, if a bit wary that maybe his writing wouldn’t be as potent and bombastic as the words he assembles and delivers onstage and on albums.

Fortunately, Watsky remained true to his voice and his delivery of his misadventures are just as vibrant, hilarious, and quirky as his other creative endeavors. In many ways, this reminded me of a more privileged, Millennial version of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. Watsky’s essays are just as jam-packed with unusual characters, drug usage, and uncommon adventures both mundane and adrenalin-spiking. For me, the standouts in this collections are “Crying & Baseball,” “What Year Is It?,” and “Good Hook!.” But no essay in this collection is lackluster as each delivers a different slice of Watsky’s life.

If you’re interested in a taste of what he has to offer, Watsky has put together a film adaptation of one of his essays, “Ask Me What I’m Doing Tonight!”

While I don’t think this collection offers any great life lessons, the humor and introspection are enjoyable. I laughed out loud. I was enamored with the robustness of his writing (my professor was right, strong verbs and nouns are the way to go). I reveled in all the places he traveled and how he was able to find purpose and meaning in every strange incident. If you’re looking for a life to escape into without sacrificing emotion and meaning, this is a great book for a mental vacation.

 

In Summary

Title(s): How to Ruin Everything: Essays

Author(s): George Watsky

Overall Rating: 5/5

Genre: Memoir

Category: Nonfiction

Format Accessed: Paperback

Additional Reading: AllHipHop’s interview with George Watsky about How to Ruin Everything