No traveling pants, but still a good read | The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares [ARC]

The Whole Thing TogetherRay and Sasha are more or less part of the same family. They grew up in the same house, with the same sisters, in the same bedroom…but they’ve never met. A long time ago, Ray’s mom used to be married to Sasha’s dad. A nasty divorce and two remarriages later, Ray and Sasha were born. 17 years later, their¬†worlds are about to collide for the first time.

Okay, so I know that Brashares has written more things than¬†JUST¬†The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but I honestly haven’t read anything else by her. I remembered really like that series though, so I decided to give this one a shot since it had a really intriguing premise to me. Right away, I really enjoyed the writing. The narration and dialogue all flowed together really well and the writing made the book very easy to read. The plot wasn’t super predictable, but there also wasn’t much that happened that was super surprising. This book is more about the characters anyway.

Family dynamics are very interesting. I’m going to say that it’s impossible for a family to be completely drama-free and the family in this book is definitely not an exception. The narration rotates between the five kids: the original three sisters (Emma, Quinn, and Mattie) and the new kids (Ray and Sasha). That, at times, got confusing for me. I was reading a digital ARC and sometimes there wasn’t a clear indicator that the book was changing narrators–I hope that’s something that is fixed or different in the physical book. That being said, if the narrators had very different tones or voices, this wouldn’t have been so confusing. Unfortunately, all of the narrators pretty much sound alike. It was very difficult to tell them apart just from the language. The only signals we get are from context.

The good thing about having so many narrators, though, is that I really felt like I got to know each of the siblings on a pretty deep level. If there had just been one or two narrators, we would have only gotten to know the other characters on a superficial level from our narrator’s perspective. I enjoyed getting to know how characters were perceived but then also having the internal viewpoint for each of them. I expected to not like at least one of the siblings, but I honestly really came to care for each of them in separate ways. Obviously they each had some less desirable traits, but I was willing to overlook them because I felt like I knew each of them on a deeper level so those things didn’t matter.

The only kind of negative thing that really stood out to me was that Jaime’s family seemed a little random. They had a ton of drama as well, but then they’re not really explored at all. I would have either liked more exploration there, or less description of it.

After reading (and pretty much loving) this book, I was surprised to see that there were many negative reviews for this book on Goodreads. One reviewer in particular (who admits to being a straight, white, female) thought that this book displayed “blatant sexism, body-shaming of all sorts, stereotyping, and some racism”. While I could see her points, I just wanted to give my two cents on some of those things. I’m also straight and female, but I’m only a quarter white so I might have a slightly different perspective.

“Blatant Sexism”. The reviewer points out a section of the book where one of our main characters, Ray, is looking at another character’s body–specifically her chest. The reviewer’s response: “This is a direct example of the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude that results in the normalization of rape and sexual assault. What could Ray do? Well I’ll tell you–he could have not looked down at Sasha’s dress, and kept his eyes to himself…” I see her point and I’m not at all trivializing the normalization of rape and sexual assault that is happening. However, I was listening to an interesting podcast the other day. It was a rerun for¬†This American Life (great podcast if you’re not already a subscriber). It was an episode completely about testosterone (listen here). In one of the sections the reporter was interviewing a transgender man about his transition. As part of the¬†transition, he had to be injected with a very high dosage of testosterone. It was really interesting to hear him talk about how he thought about women pre-transition (and testosterone) versus post. There was a stark difference. Obviously, we all have agency and can make our own choices, right? However, as a woman, I felt that my eyes were opened to this chemical thing that happens in boys that doesn’t happen in girls that I really had no idea about. It seems apparent to me that it’s not just a moral or ethical thing, but that natural chemicals and hormones are coming into play as well. I guess what my point is, is that even though I agree that Ray shouldn’t have been looking at Sasha’s chest, I¬†don’t feel that this interaction was necessarily out of place. I was uncomfortable when I read it too, but I’m not necessarily angry at Brashares for including it–I feel like I get it.

“Some Racism”. The reviewer describes her frustration that an Indian American man (actually he was raised in Canada)¬†is stereotypically a “tech genius”. Just as an aside here, I thought he was in finance, but I could have gotten that wrong. Another reviewer criticized the fact that this same character, Robert, was really trying to downplay the fact that he was Indian and wanted nothing more than to be just like all the white men out there. I can see why that’s bothersome, but I feel like we need to look at the overall context here. He was adopted by white parents and it sounded like he was raised in a white community. So from that perspective, it makes sense that he might not identify as being Indian–he wasn’t raised that way. In addition, it can be frustrating for people to make assumptions about you based on your physical appearance (I speak from personal experience here). I can understand why Robert would want to be “as white as possible” (for lack of a better term) since that’s more or less what he identifies as.

Those are just some of my thoughts about the negative comments that have been made about this book. I think a lot of the problems that people have with this book just need to be viewed in the appropriate context instead of being taken out and examined under a microscope. I, personally, was not offended by the book as a woman or as a person of color–in fact, I actually really enjoyed it! I’ll allow you to judge for yourself, but I don’t think these negative reviews should be enough to keep you from reading it if you would have picked it up otherwise.

Overall Rating: 5
Language: Heavy
Violence: Mild
Smoking/Drinking: Moderate (some drinking and some underage smoking)
Sexual Content: Moderate (nothing explicit).

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Somebody stop me from reading more books from this publisher | Incriminating Dating by Rebekah L Purdy [ARC]

Incriminating DatingAyla wants to make a difference at her school and the only real way to do that is by becoming class president. Unfortunately, that means running against the resident popular, mean girl who has been class president pretty much since Kindergarten. When Ayla catches golden boy Luke Pressler defacing public property, she sees her opportunity to get in with the popular crowd. If she blackmails Luke and his friends to support her, she could actually win this election. Unfortunately, what began as simply business threatens to become more as she starts to develop actual feelings for Luke. Ayla knows it’s stupid because he would never feel the same way about her, right?

I know I’ve talked about this before on here, but WHY DO I KEEP READING BOOKS FROM THIS PUBLISHER. They always have promising premises, but then they never payoff. I just need to learn my lesson and STAY AWAY. Seriously, next time I’m going to read one of these please, somebody stop me.

I liked Luke as a character but Ayla was just too much. I found her overbearing, judgmental, and more than a little self-righteous. To be honest, I’m not totally sure what Luke sees in her, but whatever. Luke had a surprisingly in-depth backstory and I feel like it was given enough screen time to really get to know who he is. Without giving anything away, I do question the plausibility of some things that happen towards the end…but maybe it’s a really big town.

The plot is predictably infuriating. Lack of communication leads to all kinds of drama, etc., etc. Also, characters really need to learn how to passcode protect their phones. That’s pretty much all I have to say about the plot. It’s all just very blah. The antagonist throughout the whole thing is a girl named Jenna Lee who is the cardboard mean girl that makes her way into most of these books. We get nothing from her as far as motivations go–she’s just mean for no reason. So that doesn’t really help to drive the plot forward much or make it more interesting.

Overall, I would not recommend this book. There are plenty of other “blackmailed into dating” books to read if you’re interested in that trope. I’d say give this one a hard PASS.

Overall Rating: 2
Language: Heavy
Violence: None
Smoking/Drinking: Moderate
Sexual Content: Moderate

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

What do they call a road trip in space? | Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray [ARC]

Defy the StarsNoemi is determined to save the planet Genesis even if it means sacrificing her own life to do so. But when she finds out there might be another way to save her home planet, she’s willing to travel all around the galaxy to make it happen. In this scenario, the only sacrifice would be a mech that she found aboard an abandoned ship. She’d almost feel bad about it, but mechs aren’t human and don’t have opinions or feelings¬†anyway, right?

I’m starting to think that sci-fi might not be my genre. I either find it really confusing or the explanations of the technology is too boring. I just have a hard time when there’s all this future technology that I don’t really understand. On top of that, this book has multiple WORLDS that I need to try to understand. It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that. I felt like I got a pretty good handle on Earth (obviously), Genesis, and Kismet, but then Stronghold and Cray are toss-ups. I have no idea which world is which. Overall, I wish that there had been a little more world(s) building. Gray had such a huge opportunity to create these awesome new planets, but in the end I feel like I didn’t really get a sense of “there-ness” for any of them. They might as well have been all one planet. Also, I wish the characters had actually gone to Kismet instead of just landing on its moon. That almost felt like a cop-out to me. Like the author didn’t really want to go into all the detail that Kismet would require so she just said, “Here, I’ll have them go to this more boring place instead.”

Noemi was okay as a character. I didn’t hate her, but I didn’t love her either. I don’t really feel like we got to know her that well. We get some of her background, but it’s more telling rather than showing. I didn’t¬†feel anything about her history. Like, I felt bad that she’d lost her whole family, but it didn’t feel like something tragic in her backstory even though it was. Does that even make sense? I did like the religious aspect of her character though, it gave her a little more depth. Abel was a little more interesting. There were times when you could almost forget that he’s a mech (basically a robot) but at the same time, you never really could. There were times throughout the book when his abilities were a little too convenient. Oh, the characters are in a bind? Luckily Abel can do this thing and get them out of it! I mean…everything that he did was plausible with who his character was, but still…too convenient. And I thought all the details about how he’s programmed to be really good at sex was weird and unnecessary to ANY aspect of the plot. Honestly, it just made me feel super uncomfortable every time he brought it up. Secondary characters were alright. They were really just there to help the main characters keep the plot moving.

The relationship between Abel and Noemi just seemed so obvious and contrived. Like…of COURSE they’re going to fall in love. Never mind that Abel is NOT HUMAN. Here’s the thing. I always have a really hard time when a human girl falls in love with an alien, a being who is technically hundreds of years older than her, or robots. Basically anything that isn’t really human. It just feels so weird to me! Like…we wouldn’t have a YA book where a human girl falls in love with a dog, right? So what makes these other non-human love interests okay? In my opinion, nothing. Nothing makes it okay. I’m still creeped out. WHY COULDN’T THEY HAVE JUST BEEN FRIENDS???

Overall, I thought this book was just okay. It was really slow for me to get into, but once I was about halfway through the pace really started to speed up and I finished the last half fairly quickly. It looks like this is going to be a series though and I just don’t see myself having the motivation to pick up the next book even though I wouldn’t necessarily mind finding out what happens next. But if you’re already into sci-fi, then I think you might like this book.

Overall Rating: 3
Language: None
Violence: Moderate
Smoking/Drinking: None
Sexual Content: Moderate. No actual sexual encounters, but it is mentioned openly at times.

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A book about grief and growing up too early | Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer [ARC]

Letters to the LostThe accident happened months ago, but to Juliet, it feels like it was just yesterday. Her mom took an earlier flight home as a surprise because Juliet begged her to. Now she’s dead. Hit and run. So Juliet writes her letters. Of course, she knows that her mom will never read them, but it feels good sometimes to put those emotions down on paper. When Declan finds one of Juliet’s letters at the cemetery where he’s doing community service, he can’t help but respond. They become pen pals of sorts and under the cover of anonymity they can admit things that they never had the courage to admit before.

I did not expect this book. It was deep and meaningful and was a really intense look at grief from all kinds of different angles. All of the characters in this book are flawed and the author doesn’t shy away from the ugly parts of their lives or personalities. Juliet and Declan are both kind of angry people, but I didn’t find that I minded like I have with characters from other books. Mostly I just felt sad for both characters. They’ve both had these huge events in their lives that completely change how they interact with the rest of the world. I wouldn’t say that either of them are particularly likable, but I still felt for them and I think that’s a sign of really well developed characters.

The cast of secondary characters was also amazing. I loved both Rev and Rowan, but especially Rev and I’m very excited that he’ll be getting his own book¬†coming out next year. They were a great support system for the two main characters and honestly just seem like really good people. At the same time, they had their own flaws that we don’t really have time to get into in this book–but they’re there. I also just want to give a shoutout to the fact that Rev is an unashamed Christian and isn’t portrayed as a complete freak. Then there are the adult characters. Frank, Juliet’s dad, Declan’s mom and step-dad, Rev’s parents, Mrs. Hillard, and Mr. Gerardi. A lot of times YA books portray adults as the enemies or like they just don’t understand or completely absent. There is a little bit of that in this book, but there are also a lot of times when adults are present and they are every bit as flawed as our teenage protagonists. Despite those flaws a lot of the adult characters are also super enabling. I especially loved the interactions that Declan had with Frank and Mrs. Hillard. It’s not always an us vs them thing when it comes to teens and adults–sometimes adults are on your side! So I give a big thank you to the author for illustrating that. I also loved Juliet’s gradual appreciation for her father.

There is a bit of a plot that runs as a constant thread throughout the book, but it’s definitely not the focus–we’re much more focused on the development of our main characters. I think my overall takeaway from this book is that we really shouldn’t judge other people before getting to know them. I think this is most apparent in the judgments that Rowan and Brandon make about Declan and Rev. Rowan and Brandon are nice, good people, but they don’t take the time to try to get to know either Declan or Rev. They only listen to the things they’ve heard about Declan and Rev is guilty by association and because he dresses strangely. How many of us are exactly like Rowan and Brandon? Let’s get to know and love the Declans and Revs of the world.

Overall, I thought this book was really great. While there were some¬†overused¬†elements (the “evil stepparent” for one), I also thought that the author included several refreshing elements. I think this book will, deservedly, stand apart from other books in the YA category.

Overall Rating: 4
Language: Moderate
Violence: Moderate. Some brief descriptions of child abuse.
Smoking/Drinking: Moderate
Sexual Content: Moderate. Mostly due to one scene at the end of the book–not graphic.

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The book to read if you ever wanted to learn more about autism | Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik [ARC]

Things I Should Have KnownChloe doesn’t have what anybody would call an “ideal situation”. Sure she’s pretty popular at school, but her dad died a few years ago and her mom married a total tool. On top of that, she has an autistic older sister to worry about. Her friends are supportive, but don’t really get it–not that she expects them to. When Chloe tries to set her sister up on a couple of dates, Chloe begins to see one of her classmates in a completely different light. She starts to think that maybe there is someone who can understand her after all.

This book was truly great. The author has a child who is autistic and I felt that that really shows in the book. It feels real and authentic and I learned a lot more about how to interact with people who are on the autism spectrum. This is the kind of diversity in characters that I can appreciate. The author has first-hand experience with autism and can portray it in a way that somebody without that first-hand knowledge never could in my opinion.

Chloe and David are both just really great characters. The love that they have for their siblings is obvious throughout the book. They’re definitely flawed, but I can’t help but feel that they’re still better people than I am. They have normal lives, but at the same time, their worlds kind of revolve around their siblings. Chloe and David make me want to be a better person when I’m around those with disabilities for sure. Their relationship with each other felt real and progressed at a natural pace. I thought they really balanced each other out. As far as secondary characters go, I felt that both sets of parents could have been developed a little more. More depth was shown at the end of the book, but it almost felt like too little, too late. James and Sarah were both really flat characters as well and didn’t contribute much of importance to the story.

One criticism that I have is with Chloe’s relationship with her step-dad. It just seemed so obvious to me. For once I would like to read a book where the main character looses a parent that they had a good relationship with, but then they also love their step-parent as well. Does that ever happen in real life? Does it even exist? Or am I just wishing for a unicorn here? It just feels like a really cheap way to add drama.

Ethan and Ivy were also great characters. I felt like they really showed how differently autism can manifest itself. Not all people with autism act the same way or have the same triggers. Also, I thought the author did a great job of showing that even their loved ones get fed up with them sometimes. People who have autism don’t necessarily need to be babied–they just need to be treated like normal people. The LGBT aspect of it was interesting as well. I don’t want to spoil too much, but I think the author brings up an important topic here.

Overall, I thought this book was fantastic. I’ve really liked LaZebnik’s books in the past and while this one was different, it didn’t disappoint. I definitely look forward to reading anything else that she comes out with.

Overall Rating: 4
Language: Moderate
Violence: None
Smoking/Drinking: Mild
Sexual Content: Moderate

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Just another place I’ll never be able to visit | Caraval by Stephanie Garber

CaravalScarlett has dreamt about attending Caraval ever since her grandmother told her magical stories from the last time Caraval was in town. But now that Scarlett’s arranged marriage is looming, she’s given up on that dream and only wants to make it to her wedding day so that she can get herself and her younger sister, Donatella, away from their abusive father. Unexpectedly, a letter arrives from Caraval’s orchestrater, Legend himself, inviting Scarlett, Tella, and Scarlett’s fianc√© to attend this year’s Caraval performance. Scarlett has already put Caraval behind her, but Tella won’t take no for an answer. They soon find themselves on Legend’s private island with a sailor, Julian, who neither knows much about as they finally enter the world of Caraval. It’s only a game, but what happens when everything starts to feel too real?

My new dream in life is to attend Caraval. I would literally trade 1,000 Hogwarts acceptance letters to attend one week of Caraval. This place sounds amazing. There’s a scavenger type hunt and lots of intrigue and yummy sounding foods. You pay for things with secrets, desires, and truths and you’re only allowed out at night. Talk about atmospheric! I thought the author did a pretty good job describing the scene, but if we’re going to compare it to The Night Circus¬†(which everybody has been) then more definitely could have been done to create the atmosphere and build the world. All of the places that Scarlett goes are pretty well described, but they don’t always make sense in the grand scheme of things. Because of that, it makes elements of the plot feel a little too coincidental throughout the book. While I could visualize specific shops, I had a hard time imagining what Caraval must look like as a whole (even with the map in the front cover).

The plot itself was pretty good. There’s a clear goal, but the journey would get a little fuzzy at times. The clues didn’t always make the most sense to me. I know they were supposed to be kind of obscure, but it didn’t feel clear enough how things were supposed to connect with each other. Again, this made elements of the plot feel super coincidental instead of calculated as I think they were intended to be. Without getting into any spoilers, I felt that the ending was a bit of a let down with how the rest of the plot had been built up. There were too many convenient things that happened which, I felt, cheapened the rest of the story. It was just kind of like, “Oh, this plot point is explained by this thing that was happening but nobody knew about, but trust me it was happening. Boom, plot point solved.” I would have appreciated some loose ends or at least less closure.

The characters were just okay for me. I thought some of the secondary characters were pretty great like Jovan and Aiko, but the main characters themselves weren’t much more developed than the secondary characters. Everybody seemed to be pretty one note with one motivation and one motivation only. Scarlett just wanted to get her sister and go home–she didn’t want to let herself enjoy Caraval at all and for someone who’d been looking forward to it, I didn’t find it genuine that Scarlett didn’t loosen up at all. Tella was just kind of selfish the whole time. There was a small glimpse of her love for Scarlett at the beginning of the book, but those strong feelings never really surfaced in the rest of the book. Julian was just kind of a weird character. I didn’t feel very connected to him and I didn’t feel that the relationship between him and Scarlett was super believable or well-developed. All of a sudden, it was just happening. Honestly, I was rooting for Dante, but Scarlett probably doesn’t deserve him. Legend was kind of a strange character as well. He spends so much time off-screen, so to speak, that I’m not really sure how I feel about him.

Overall, this review kind of makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the book, but I really did. There were so many things to love about it but I think my expectations were a tad too high. I love scavenger hunts and so I was a little disappointed with how that all worked out and atmospherically, this book can’t really compete with The Night Circus. With that being said, I would definitely recommend this book. You’ll find yourself lost in the world of Caraval and imagining which shops you’d visit first and which foods you’d taste. You’ll ponder whether you would be a player or a watcher (I’d probably play, but I wouldn’t be super competitive about it). I’ll be interested to see how the next book¬†plays out (yeah, I didn’t know this was going to be a duology either).

Overall Rating: 4
Language: Mild
Violence: Heavy. Quite a few scenes with the sisters and their physically abusive father.
Smoking/Drinking: Mild
Sexual Content: Moderate

Deaf Graffiti Artist Hates Everyone | You’re Welcome, Universe by Whitney Gardner [ARC]

You're Welcome, UniverseJulia was only trying to defend her best friend and if somebody also appreciated her awesome graf, then so be it. Unfortunately, that same best friend ratted her out to the school administration and Julia is expelled from her deaf school and forced to go to a normal public school. Now she’s trying to avoid her new interpreter, Casey, while lying low so her moms don’t find out that she’s trying to plan a graffiti masterpiece for the underpass. When someone starts tagging her work, Julia becomes obsessed with figuring out who this new graffiti artist thinks they are.

So many feelings about this book… First I’ll say that the writing was fast-paced and punchy which made the flow really fun to read. I also thought that the insight into deaf life was really interesting. I liked that the author didn’t feel the need to say “signed” every time somebody said something. Characters just had normal conversations, but since they were deaf I imagined them signing without the author having to tell me explicitly that that’s what they were doing. I also liked the illustrations included throughout the book and the emoticons that Julia used were a fun touch as well.

That’s about all the positive things I have to say about this book unfortunately. Julia reminded me a lot of Parker from Eric Lindstrom’s Not If I See You First. They were both just so angry as characters. I didn’t really understand where all of Julia’s anger came from. She was very quick to judge other characters and overall I thought she was very selfish with almost no development throughout the story. I mean, she calls her new best friend YP (short for Yoga Pants) throughout the whole book. We literally never learn her name.¬†A couple times Julia just refers to her as “Pants”. Is this for real? That’s so demeaning! And her friend is apparently just okay with this? No thanks.

Julia’s relationship with her old best friend, Sydney, is strange from the start. Julia apparently feels really protective of her. So much so that she graffitis the school. But then her friend rats her out and Julia goes from protective to hating her best friend’s guts. That just doesn’t feel like a genuine relationship at all and only seemed to serve as a way to kick off the story and get the plot going.

My last issue is about the distribution of diversity in this story. I’m all for diversity in YA, but we have this one character who has a disability, is a minority, and also has two moms. It just seems a bit much for one person? I’m not saying that one person can’t have this many diverse characteristics, and the author more or less incorporated each one into the character’s previous development, but it just seems like all of the diversity is concentrated around Julia. She’s surrounded by white characters (with the exception being one of her moms) and even though Sydney is technically also deaf, she has Cochlear Implants so she’s basically a “hearie” according to Julia. It just would have felt more real if the diversity was spread out a little bit more. Share the love!

Lastly, the plot was just kind of there. It was a little confusing and not the most compelling, but it was alright. I didn’t really understand why YP’s ex-boyfriend got so much screen time, but whatever. I would have liked to have had her issues explored a bit more. She had an eating disorder, but then overcame it. But now she’s getting bullied and she has this weird relationship with her ex. But Julia’s so focused on herself that we never get to see what’s going on with YP or figure out why her dad bakes so much. The last thing I have to say about the plot is that the conflict between Julia and YP towards the end felt forced.

Overall, I probably wouldn’t recommend this book. The main character is just too angry and I felt so bothered every time I saw the letters “YP” on the page. I think it’s great that the author is trying to write a book with a deaf main character, but I would recommend Song of Summer by Laura Lee Anderson over this one (my review here).

Overall Rating: 2
Language: Heavy
Violence: None
Smoking/Drinking: None
Sexual Content: Moderate. There’s one scene in particular (not too explicit) that came out of nowhere and literally had no impact on moving the plot forward.

Note: I received this book free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.