Wednesday, May 24, 2017

A Dark Story of Friendship and Assault: Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles

Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles | Goodreads

Publisher: Candlewick
Release: October 9, 2007
Source: Library
An unflinching story of a troubled friendship — and one girl’s struggle to come to terms with secrets and shame and find her own power to heal.

Leah Greene is dead. For Laine, knowing what really happened and the awful feeling that she is, in some way, responsible set her on a journey of painful self-discovery. Yes, she wished for this. She hated Leah that much. Hated her for all the times in the closet, when Leah made her do those things. They were just practicing, Leah said. But why did Leah choose her? Was she special, or just easy to control? And why didn’t Laine make it stop sooner? In the aftermath of the tragedy, Laine is left to explore the devastating lessons Leah taught her, find some meaning in them, and decide whether she can forgive Leah and, ultimately, herself.
A dark and difficult-to-read story. A short but dense book that would pack an assault of emotions into a small page count. A novel that would not hesitate to display twisted people, problems, and emotions.

This is what I expected from Lessons from a Dead Girl: what I had been told to expect and what the cover, with its ominous door bathed in deep plum dimness, led me to expect. I prepared myself to turn lead-heavy pages, forcing myself to power through a wonderfully written yet painful narrative.

However, this novel only met half of my expectations—I was right that searing emotions and unflinching writing would take center stage, but I was wrong that the story would prove hard to read. Jo Knowles's writing style and plotting choices keep the story buoyant and make the book a surprisingly quick read, perfectly complementing the dark subject matter.

Lessons from a Dead Girl is told in an extended flashback, with only the first and last chapters taking place after Leah's death; the rest chronicle Laine's relationship with Leah, focusing on the formation of the wounds rather than the healing. Spotlighting the before rather than the after may seem to produce a more intense story, but it actually does the opposite, making the plot seem lighter. At the beginning, we barely get a glimpse of the jaded, untrusting teenager Laine has become before launching into her childhood innocence. From there, Laine's psychological damage from her relationship with Leah progresses bit by bit, and readers get to watch every step of the journey. As a result, readers are never hit with the full weight of Laine's messed-up mind all at once; they get to ease into it chapter by chapter as Leah mangles Laine's confidence more and more. The final product is a story that, while still packed with plenty of emotions, is easier to read than one that drops readers directly into the aftermath of a traumatic event.

The slow build of Laine and Leah's relationship takes place over almost their entire childhood—from the beginning of elementary school to the end of high school—and Knowles's method of condensing several years into a short novel also makes Lessons from a Dead Girl a quick read. Instead of skimming over the ten years that the story spans, the author tells the story in moments, each chapter focusing on a major instance when Laine's relationship with Leah taught her a lesson. Weeks or months can pass between chapters, creating a light and airy narration that helps readers breeze through the author's in-depth portrayal of important, painful moments.

With scarring emotions and a user-friendly narration style, Lessons from a Dead Girl is a perfect fit for everyone, from the reader who is just starting to try stories with hard-hitting subject matter to the seasoned "issue book" reader. Knowles once again proves a talent for empathy on par with the likes of Laurie Halse Anderson, and I will undoubtedly return for the rest of her books. 

Monday, May 1, 2017

April 2017 in Review

Happy May! To my fellow students, I hope you’re not feeling too crushed under the weight of final projects, AP exams, or any other end-of-the-year struggles. And to everyone else, I hope you’re enjoying the upcoming season shift that seems to be already upon us. I also hope everyone had a fantastic April and read as many great books as I did!

highlight from my reading list 

Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins | Goodreads
I read some excellent books in April: Riley Redgate’s Seven Ways We Lie (which I reviewed here) and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, to name a couple. But one I didn’t talk about nearly enough is Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins, a YA retelling of The Canterbury Tales that sings with cleverness and humanity. The book follows a bus full of high school seniors en route to Washington D.C. for a civics field trip—and as they drive, each one tells a story of his or her own design. I loved seeing the author modernize medieval anecdotes, and I loved watching the students open up to each other through their tales.

You don’t have to have an extensive knowledge of medieval literature to enjoy Sometimes We Tell the Truth (although I wish I had been slightly more familiar with the source material—I’ve only read a few of the stories in The Canterbury Tales), and there’s intersex and bi/pansexual representation. It’s an all-around excellent read, especially (but not exclusively) for fans of retellings of the classics.

highlight from my tbr

The Unlikelies by Carrie Firestone | Goodreads
Spotlighting a girl who becomes an internet sensation after a video of her saving a distressed baby goes viral, The Unlikelies sounds like the perfect summer read. Plus, the protagonist goes on to create a group of five mismatched local teens whose mission is to right wrongs in their neighborhood, which seems to me like an excellent use of one of my favorite plot devices: the “join the team” trope. This premise, combined with the humor and hidden depth the blurb promises, is sure to produce a great book to pick up this June or July.

highlights from my life 

  • I finally finalized my summer plans. I'm working full-time as a summer reading clerk at a nearby library, and I can't wait to spend my days surrounded by books and working with children. I have a feeling it will be the best summer job I could have asked for. 

  • I confirmed I'm going to Book Expo! I'll officially be in New York City from May 31 to June 3. (I can't believe it's only one month away!) I've never been to Book Expo before, so I'm absolutely thrilled—I want to meet everyone, so if you'll be there too, let me know! 

  • I marched for science on Earth Day! I've been to a few marches and protests since the fateful day of November 8, and the Indianapolis March for Science was my favorite yet. I loved being around a huge crowd of people as passionate about science as I am (and, of course, seeing everyone's clever signs). I'd highly recommend joining protests near you—I'm already looking forward to the next one. 

  • I explored my city. From meandering alone on Sunday afternoons to visiting the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library and making pottery at the Fountain Square Clay Center with friends, I tried to get outside and explore Indianapolis this month. I'll be moving back to the suburbs for the summer, so I wanted to appreciate my last few weeks (for a while, that is) living downtown. 

I hope all of you had a lovely April and are planning ahead for an even lovelier May!  

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Seven Reasons to Read Seven Ways We Lie

Seven Ways We Lie by Riley Redgate | Goodreads

Publisher: Abrams
Release: March 8, 2016
Source: Library
Seven students. Seven (deadly) sins. One secret.

Paloma High School is ordinary by anyone’s standards. It’s got the same cliques, the same prejudices, the same suspect cafeteria food. And like every high school, every student has something to hide—from Kat, the thespian who conceals her trust issues onstage, to Valentine, the neurotic genius who’s planted the seed of a school scandal.

When that scandal bubbles over, and rumors of a teacher-student affair surface, everyone starts hunting for someone to blame. For the seven unlikely allies at the heart of it all, the collision of their seven ordinary-seeming lives results in extraordinary change.
I read Seven Ways We Lie earlier this month, and it quickly became a new favorite—I can guarantee it will end up on my best-of-2017 list. If you’re still on the fence, here are seven reasons why you should read it too.

1. The characterization. Riley Redgate took a unique, clever idea (seven characters, each of whom embodies one of the seven deadly sins) and pulled it off with biting precision. Each character’s central sin subtly weaves into his or her personality, creating an engaging matching game as well as a thought-provoking look into the many vices that can drive us to lie—to ourselves and to others. I can’t pick a favorite character because each is endlessly complex, redeemably flawed, and hauntingly memorable.

2. The multiple POVs. Each individual character will captivate you, but their intertwining perspectives create an interconnected masterpiece. The combining voices in this story are some of the most distinct I’ve ever read (you won’t ever find yourself wondering whose chapter you’re reading), and the order in which their stories unfold creates perfect pacing.

3. The portrayal of sexuality. Seven Ways We Lie features an explicitly pansexual character who grapples with his orientation in ways both heart-rending and true-to-life—from worrying about coming out in a conservative town to explaining that no, he’s not bi. There’s also a girl who has a comeback for every slut-shaming comment thrown her way and a boy who’s clearly aromantic and asexual. (Even though the labels aren’t specifically used, can we talk about how much I appreciated a character saying he doesn't have crushes?)

4. The dialogue. Riley Redgate can write. Every element of her debut novel gleams with innate craftsmanship, but the conversations between her characters impressed me most of all. Whether pulled from a heart-to-heart or ripped from a vicious argument, every line of dialogue rolls of the page as if it jumped straight from a real-life conversation. The result is an immersive experience that will make you feel as if you’re living—not just reading about—the characters’ experiences.

5. The realism. Seven Ways We Lie provides a satisfying ending, but not a fairy-tale one; throughout the story, characters face challenges that don’t always get resolved in the way you hope or expect. This book is gritty and authentic, and it portrays high school scandals perfectly.

6. The varying issues. Redgate’s debut takes on several heavy topics—student/teacher relationships, divorce, sexuality, friendship, and more—and handles them all deftly. Each issue receives less attention than it could have with a more focused plot, but this only ties into the aforementioned realism. In life, we don’t always know all the details; we can only make the best of what we do share with each other, and reading a book that embodies this reality feels refreshing.

7. The expert storytelling. All these elements and more combine to form a tale that is brilliantly woven and utterly addictive. I read it over the span of a few days, completely obsessed. Reading Seven Ways We Lie is a captivating experience I cannot quite verbalize, complete with the kind of gripping writing that cannot quite be taught. I highly recommend that you, too, delve into this novel’s world of small-town high school scandal and lies that run deep; I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Ten (Non-Dystopian) YA Novels With Characters who Resist

It’s 2017, and never before have I related more to dystopian YA heroines. A resistance movement is in full swing here in the United States, compelling us all to channel our inner Katniss Everdeens and Tris Priors.

But oppressive futuristic societies aren’t the only places you can find characters fighting for their rights—historical, contemporary, and fantasy novels contain just as many triumphant stories of activism and persistence. So, because we all need a bit of inspiration in this time of resistance, here are ten (non-dystopian) books with characters who stand up to structures of power both big and small. Some of the characters aim to overthrow their government, others seek to deliver justice where due, and others ache to influence their culture’s norms—but all are astonishingly smart and strong.

Set during the Inquisition, this masterpiece of a novel tells the tale of three sisters and a heretic named Dolssa who dare to question the Catholic church. It vividly weaves together friendship, history, religion, and suspense—and it’s hands-down one of my all-time favorite books.

This heartbreaking, hopeful, unexpectedly thrilling story follows a girl forced into an unwanted arranged marriage by her conservative immigrant parents. She stands up to her family while maintaining her love for her Pakistani culture, taking readers on an emotionally gripping journey along the way.

The women’s suffrage movement in early-1900s London creates a marvelous backdrop for this coming-of-age story about a girl who protests for what she believes in.

Set in an eerie, atmospheric slaughterhouse, this Phantom of the Opera retelling explores the dynamics of power and oppression between two fictional ethnic groups—and what happens when a revolution causes the carefully-constructed hierarchy to crumble.

This book is set in an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II and follows a shape-shifting bike racer on a quest to kill Hitler. If that’s not an epic example of resistance, I don’t know what is.

How could I not include this insightful, relevant novel that takes on the topic of police brutality? If you haven’t read this one yet, I highly encourage you to change that.

Set against an alternate historical New England backdrop, this book tells the story of Cate Cahill and her sisters, three witches who aim to dismantle their oppressive, patriarchal, magic-hating government.

At Themis Academy, the administration trusts and expects its student body to behave honorably—it almost never hands out punishments, as admitting student wrongdoing would mar the school’s pristine reputation. Instead, an underground student society called The Mockingbirds dedicates itself to righting wrongs committed on campus, resisting the indifference of the administration.

As the first girl to attend a previously all-male military academy, Sam McKenna faces a group of cadets who want her gone—and will stop at nothing to force her out. But despite danger and fear, she never stops persisting and fighting to maintain her right to attend her school.

Complete with vivid imagery and details, this book follows a cast of endearing characters who refuse to lose themselves in the repressive, horrifying rituals of a gay conversion camp. The Summer I Wasn’t Me is alarming but engrossing; I couldn’t put it down.


What are your favorite books with characters who resist? Send your recommendations my way!

Also, friendly reminder that reading about characters who resist is an amazing pastime, but it’s important that you're resisting as well! I know the state of the planet can feel hopeless and overwhelming, but your small contributions do help. Volunteer, donate, and protest if you can, and for my American friends, make sure you're calling your elected officials! A few resources that help me are Five Calls and Daily Action (which give you issues and scripts to use for your calls) and Celeste Pewter’s Twitter feed—she does an incredible job of breaking down the news and giving us action steps we can take.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Twelve 2017 Sophomore Novels On My TBR

I love debut novels as much as the next blogger. I love finding new talent, supporting authors who have recently ventured into the world of publishing, and becoming an OG fan of a soon-to-be-famous writer. But I also know that many authors say creating a second book (under pressure from publishers, book deals, and readers) is the hardest writing experience of their career. For that reason, I also love supporting sophomore authors—authors who made it through their first book release and decided to come back for more.

With that in mind, here are twelve YA sophomore novels releasing this year that should be on your TBR list.

The story of the Virgin Mary meets modern-day politics in this novel about a girl who finds herself (inconceivably) pregnant in the middle of her father’s congressional campaign. This book sounds riveting and unique—perhaps with a dash of the supernatural.

I loved Brandy Colbert’s rich and riveting debut novel, and I’ve heard great things about her sophomore novel’s intersectional black, Jewish, bisexual representation.

A book about a girl who writes a wildly-popular webcomic and loves her digital community? Sign me up.

Speaking of books about fan culture, this sophomore novel features a girl who never quite got over the boy band everyone loved in middle school—and one day, she gets to meet (and perhaps fall in love with) her favorite star.

This meta-fiction story about a teenager who turns out to be a character in a YA novel sounds quirky, unusual, and inventive.

This musical novel set at a performing arts school features an alto II who dresses up in drag to become a tenor I in her school all-male a cappella octet. In other words, I can’t wait to read it.

Set on a ranch in the arid Southwest, Samantha Mabry’s novel about forbidden romance, supernatural curses, and delicate survival sounds magical and atmospheric.

Amanda Maciel proved in her debut novel, Tease, that she has a talent for writing about gritty issues facing real teens. As a result, her sophomore novel about friendship, sexual assault, and mental health is sure to be fantastic.

When Taliah Abdallat finally gets the chance to reconnect with her long-estranged rock star father, she drops everything to travel with him to small-town Indiana to see her ailing grandfather. If this book is even a fraction as emotional and beautifully written as the author’s debut, My Heart and Other Black Holes, it will end up becoming a new favorite.

The bisexuality representation in this novel is supposed to be brilliant—plus the two central characters both sound complex and fascinating.

I’m always, always down for Victorian-era mysteries. If you are too, this book should be on your radar.

This book has been out in the UK since 2016, but since it didn’t hit shelves in my home country of the United States until this year, I’m counting it. The premise promises the story of a boy and a girl who you think are going to fall in love—but instead, they make a podcast. I’m more than here for this.

What sophomore novels are you looking forward to reading this year?