Dear Martin

I’ve been a fan of the TV show Grey’s Anatomy since the beginning. And while I’ve missed an episode or two throughout the 15 seasons, it never fails to make me laugh and cry and have lots of “feels.” One of the scenes that touched me the most was in last year’s “Personal Jesus” episode in which Dr. Bailey and her husband Ben give their son Tuck “the talk” about how to act if he’s ever approached by police. Since he’s black, his mom tells him, “Your only goal is to get home safely.” He “can’t climb through windows, throw rocks, play with toy guns and never, ever run.” It was an emotional conversation and illustrated the point that for people of color, it’s not a given that their children will return home safely or that police officers are there to protect them. Grey’s Anatomy was bigger than a television show on that night, and fiction can work in the same way. I think books provide a great way for us to learn and empathize with lives that are different from our own. After reading The Hate U Give last year, I kept seeing Dear Martin as recommended reading, so it seemed like another good opportunity to learn about the reality of race in America. 

Goodreads Blurb:

Raw, captivating, and undeniably real, Nic Stone joins industry giants Jason Reynolds and Walter Dean Myers as she boldly tackles American race relations in this stunning debut.

Justyce McAllister is top of his class and set for the Ivy League—but none of that matters to the police officer who just put him in handcuffs. And despite leaving his rough neighborhood behind, he can’t escape the scorn of his former peers or the ridicule of his new classmates. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.

Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny, windows rolled down, music turned up—way up, sparking the fury of a white off-duty cop beside them. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.

I really wanted to like this book. It discusses real-life, important issues. It had such great reviews and hype. But…it just wasn’t done very well.

Dear Martin tells the story of Justyce McAllister, high school senior, as he questions what it means to be a young black man in a world where it’s always trying to bring you down. He might be from a rough part of town, but he’s going to make something of himself. He attends a fancy, mostly-white school and is Ivy-League bound. But week after week, he hears about kids who look just like him who are gunned down by police officers, and even experiences a run in with police himself. He starts writing letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a way to channel his anger and become more aware.

Early on, I realized that this is one YA book that actually feels young adult. There’s no subtlety or layers. The author leads us right to the point rather than allowing the reader to formulate questions and opinions. On top of that, nothing new is really brought to the table. It’s a collection of thoughts and arguments – that we’ve all heard before – with a loose story attached. I was quite unimpressed, but figured at only 200 pages, it was still worth it to power through. I’m glad I did because halfway through the story, the writing – or at least, the storytelling – gets much better. There’s a cohesive plot and the reader develops actual feelings for the characters. Basically, the second half of the book feels completely different than the first half.

At the end of the book, the author notes that she was interested in “examin[ing] current affairs through the lens of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s teachings,” however, I’m not sure how successful she was in this because she shares hardly any details about MLK. Where were the stories and speeches and examples of what he did? This would have been really useful considering the main character is writing to “Martin” and asking for his advice. Even the main character questions why he bothered to write to him: “What was my goal with the Be Like Martin thing? Was I trying to get more respect? (Fail.) Was I trying to be ‘more acceptable’? (Fail.) Did I think it would keep me out of trouble? (Epic fail.) Really, what was the purpose?” That was my question, too. The letter writing was a gimmick that didn’t really serve a purpose.

Despite my criticism of the book, I do think it could be important for a younger audience who may be new to thinking about race issues. For more experienced readers, I think there are better books to read about this topic.


The Finisher

My third book of the year wasn’t one I picked out on my own. Instead, it was a birthday present from my Aunt Shannon. She sent me the first and second book in the Vega Jane series, and while at first I was reluctant – the blurb reminded me too much of The Giver, one of my favorite books – I quickly realized that while there are hints of other books, The Finisher is its own thing. Dystopian, yes, but also fantasy – and since those are some of my favorite genres, I ended up really enjoying this book and I look forward to reading more of the series.    

Goodreads Blurb:

Welcome to Wormwood: a place where curiosity is discouraged and no one has ever left.

Until one girl, Vega Jane, discovers a map that suggests a mysterious world beyond the walls. A world with possibilities and creatures beyond her imagining.

But she will be forced to fight for her freedom. And unravelling the truth may cost Vega her life.

With (alleged) dangers encroaching on their village, the government council declares that a wall must be built to provide protection. While this seems absurd to many people in the village, the council insists that foreigners “outliers” – which they know absolutely nothing about – are out to get them. This frightens the majority of people so badly that the wall gets built in a hurry.

Vega Jane, almost 15 sessions old, realizes this for the sham it is. She goes off in search of answers, discovering that her village of Wormwood holds many secrets and lies.

If it wasn’t for all the magic – fantastic and terrifying creatures, objects with special powers, hidden rooms, and cryptic messages – one might think this story was politically motivated. This book was published in 2014, so I’ll give Baldacci the benefit of the doubt, but it’s hard not to read through our current lens in 2019.

This YA fantasy – a first for author David Baldacci – hits on a lot things right:

– Tough, cool heroine who is insanely brave ✔

– Characters with moral ambiguity: are they good? bad? I can’t decide yet ✔

– Tons of magical twists and turns and suspense ✔

– A quest that seems daunting to complete ✔

There were just a few cons for me:

1) The people of Wormwood – called Wugmorts, or Wugs – think they’re the only village and only people. Really? How do any of them believe this? Their history has a lot of holes. How can Vega be the first to question this?

2) The creatures are so terrifying, but also, incredibly difficult to picture. I couldn’t quite “suspend my disbelief” for some reason. They felt forced and too over-the-top.

3) Vega never gets an answer about anything. Just riddles or more questions. This makes for frustrating reading. I hope the next book will provide more explanation (but I’m worried that it won’t).

Overall, this was a fun and fresh read. While it will remind readers of other books they’ve read, it holds its own because it sort of combines the feel of a dystopian book – teenage rebel on a mission to learn the truth and overthrow the status quo – with fantasy elements.

Also, it may seem like I’m rating all the books the same…but that is a coincidence! I’ve been lucky so far this year to be reading books that are pleasantly enjoyable. I promise that not every book I read gets a 4 star rating!

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley

From teenagers in a high-tech skyscraper to a father who was shot twelve times – my reading choices for the first two books of the year couldn’t be more different! That’s what happens when your book selection relies on the OverDrive app, though, waiting for holds to come in. My second read of 2019 was The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti.

Goodreads Blurb:

A father protects his daughter from the legacy of his past and the truth about her mother’s death in this thrilling new novel from the prize-winning author of The Good Thief.

After years spent living on the run, Samuel Hawley moves with his teenage daughter, Loo, to Olympus, Massachusetts. There, in his late wife’s hometown, Hawley finds work as a fisherman, while Loo struggles to fit in at school and grows curious about her mother’s mysterious death. Haunting them both are twelve scars Hawley carries on his body, from twelve bullets in his criminal past; a past that eventually spills over into his daughter’s present, until together they must face a reckoning yet to come. This father-daughter epic weaves back and forth through time and across America, from Alaska to the Adirondacks.

Both a coming-of-age novel and a literary thriller, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley explores what it means to be a hero, and the cost we pay to protect the people we love most.

I chose to read this book after hearing about it on NPR. But by the time my hold came in, I had forgotten what the book was about and what I was intrigued by! As I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What is the point of all this? What am I supposed to get out of it? Where is this book going?” At times, the pacing was slow, but then there were moments of extreme action. Even though its plot and purpose meander, I still ended up enjoying this book.

The book follows Loo and her father, Samuel Hawley, as they move to be closer to Loo’s maternal grandmother. Loo has a tough time fitting in at school, partly because her father gets a bad reputation after beating up some fishermen, and partly because there are some real jerks in her class. When Loo is a teenager, she finally realizes that her dad might not be the best guy. She starts to wonder why he has so many guns, why he’s so paranoid, and why they’ve had to pick up and leave so often and so suddenly. In between Loo’s chapters, there is a chapter detailing each of the twelve times Hawley has been shot. These chapters are ridiculous – from a shoot-out in a diner, to a man shooting his own wife, to a near-drowning after a whale almost topples their boat, to accidentally shooting himself – Hawley has had a life like no other. It’s no surprise, then, that Loo doesn’t know how to blend in at school. While Loo and her father struggle to understand each other, their relationship gets tested in a dramatic final chapter called “Everything That’s Happened & Is Happening & Is Going to Happen.”

While many reviews I’ve seen online have expressed displeasure at the amount of violence in the book and the lack of sympathy they felt for the title character, I found it really interesting that I was rooting for Hawley and his daughter in spite of their obvious flaws. It’s true: Hawley has done a lot of bad things in his life. He deserves to go to jail. He never seems remorseful about the terrible things he’s done. Even so, I wanted him to escape, to live, to get away with his crimes! I could easily see this book turned into a movie or HBO miniseries. The alternating flashback chapters, rooting for the underdog, and the author’s descriptions make the novel very cinematic. I was also hooked by the two mysteries that are woven through the novel: how did Loo’s mother, Lily, (Hawley’s one-true-love) die, and is anyone really out to get Hawley? We gather bits and pieces as the book sprawls on, and my predictions kept changing as I read. In all, I’m glad I stuck with this book and gave it a chance, and I’d definitely consider reading another book by Hannah Tinti.

The Towering Sky

Two posts already this month?! It’s not November, is it?! Shocking, I know. But this year, I’d like to post more throughout the year. I think the best way for me to do that is to share what I’ve been reading. This year, I set my Goodreads goal at 52 books. If you’re joining in on the Goodreads challenge, I’d love to hear about your goal in the comments. The first book I completed this year was The Towering Sky, which is the third book in Katharine McGee’s The Thousandth Floor YA series.

Goodreads Blurb:

Welcome back to New York, 2119. A skyscraper city, fueled by impossible dreams, where the lives of five teenagers have become intertwined in ways that no one could have imagined.

Leda just wants to move on from what happened in Dubai. Until a new investigation forces her to seek help—from the person she’s spent all year trying to forget.

Rylin is back in her old life, reunited with an old flame. But when she starts seeing Cord again, she finds herself torn: between two worlds, and two very different boys.

Calliope feels trapped, playing a long con that costs more than she bargained for. What happens when all her lies catch up with her?

Watt is still desperately in love with Leda. He’ll do anything to win her back—even dig up secrets that are better left buried.

And now that Avery is home from England—with a new boyfriend, Max—her life seems more picture-perfect than ever. So why does she feel like she would rather be anything but perfect?

In this breathtaking finale to The Thousandth Floor trilogy, Katharine McGee returns to her vision of 22nd-century New York: a world of startling glamour, dazzling technology, and unthinkable secrets. After all, when you have everything… you have everything to lose.

Instead of including extra novellas and sneak peeks at the end of books, wouldn’t it be nice if publishers included recaps so you could catch up on the previous book before starting the new one? Just throwing that idea out there!

I struggled a bit at the beginning of this book because I couldn’t remember where all of the characters’ story lines left off. I couldn’t remember what we knew, and what we thought we knew, and which characters knew what. I went online in search of a recap of The Dazzling Heights, but any mention of the book’s plot was annoyingly vague! I guess that should motivate me to take better notes the next time I’m reading a series.

This third book started a little slow, but that’s probably because there were so many characters to catch up on and new conflicts to set up. However, most of the conflict was the same things we’ve been dealing with in the previous books (*WARNING: Minor spoilers ahead, as this is the third book in the series*):

  • Avery: Will she ever get over her brother, Atlas?
  • Leda: Will she face consequences for how Eris really died?
  • Watt: Will he get caught for having a quantum computer…in his head?
  • Rylin: Will she recognize her true potential and stay away from trouble?
  • Calliope: Will she be able to keep up the charade as a pious philanthropist so her mom can remain happily married, or will they get recognized as the con-women they are?

While each character gets another layer added to their story line (usually dealing with a romantic relationship), this book wasn’t as fresh and exhilarating as the past books. I could predict things that were going to happen well before they did. The book finally gets more dramatic around 70% of the way through, and then the ending is the most exciting part. The ending wraps up each of the subplots and is mostly satisfying.

I can tell that this review doesn’t provide the most obvious praise, but this really was a fun series to read. I was impressed with the author’s use of technology. While many of the technologies seem to be far-fetched, after listening to a future technologies podcast with my husband, the author seems to really know what she’s writing about! A “holography” class may not be too far off in the future. I also liked how each of the characters reads very differently. They each have different personalities and worries and I never got their chapters mixed up, even though there were many points of view to keep track of.

I would recommend this to readers who typically enjoy YA series, but I’d especially recommend this to readers who are in a bit of a reading slump and just need something a little different. Teen drama amidst cool technology and high stakes makes The Thousandth Floor series a fun read.

My 5 Star Books of 2018

We’re already 18 days into 2019, but I still wanted to share some of the best books I read last year. I hope you’ll be inspired to add them to your TBR lists if you haven’t read them yet. Out of 59 books, I gave 13 books a 5 star rating on Goodreads. The chart below talks about 10 of these titles. While most of the titles are YA, I find it interesting that there are two graphic novels listed and a nonfiction book. Neither have appeared in my previous “Five Star” posts (check out my lists for 2015, 2016, and 2017). A tip: click on the infographic below so you can zoom in and actually read the text!

Honorable Mentions:

  • Becky Albertalli’s books:
    • Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (and the adorable film adaptation, Love, Simon)
    • Leah on the Offbeat 
    • The Upside of Unrequited 
  • Holding Up the Universe by Jennifer Niven
  • One Dark Throne and Two Dark Reigns by Kendare Blake
  • The Thousandth Floor series by Katharine McGee
  • Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik
  • Ten Thousand Skies Above You (Firebird #2) by Claudia Gray

Did any of the above books make it onto your favorites list? What were your favorite books of the year?

5 Star Reads of 2017

This year, I was blown away by the second and third books in multiple trilogies. In the past, it had felt like no other book in a series could top the first book – and the third book? Might as well just pretend it never existed (I’m looking at you, Allegiant). But authors Sarah J. Maas, Victoria Aveyard, and Leigh Bardugo have made me hopeful that trilogies and series are alive and well. Sarah J. Maas tops my list as the author of five of my most favorite books of the year. Stand alone books didn’t disappoint either. Exit, Pursued by a Bear is a must-read for anyone looking for a politically and emotionally savvy #metoo read. I’ve been anxiously awaiting for another book from my Graceling-universe-author Kristin Cashore, and while Jane, Unlimited was worlds away from Graceling, I was still hooked on every page. I’m looking forward to whatever else she decides to write. Another interesting thing about this list? Women authors dominate, with the only male writer being Scott Westerfeld for Afterworlds. Way to go, ladies!

Without further ado, here are my five star reads of 2017, in no particular order:   

  1. A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  2. A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses #2) by Sarah J. Maas
  3. A Court of Wings and Ruin (A Court of Thorns and Roses #3) by Sarah J. Maas
  4. Crown of Midnight (Throne of Glass #2) by Sarah J. Maas
  5. King’s Cage (Red Queen #3) by Victoria Aveyard
  6. Ruin and Rising (The Grisha Trilogy #3) by Leigh Bardugo
  7. Exit, Pursued by a Bear by E.K. Johnston
  8. Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore

But I read so many GREAT books this year, and eight books just doesn’t do my reading list justice. So here are a few four star books that were an absolute pleasure to read.

Honorable Mentions:

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
  • Something New: Tales from a Makeshift Bride by Lucy Knisley
  • Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Trilogy #1) by Leigh Bardugo
  • Siege and Storm (The Grisha Trilogy #2) by Leigh Bardugo
  • The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath and the Dawn #1) by Renee Ahdieh
  • The Rose and the Dagger (The Wrath and the Dawn #2) by Renee Ahdieh
  • Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld
  • A Million Suns (Across the Universe #2) by Beth Revis
  • Shades of Earth (Across the Universe #3) by Beth Revis
  • Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
  • Throne of Glass (Throne of Glass #1) by Sarah J. Maas
  • When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
  • A Thousand Pieces of You (Firebird #1) by Claudia Gray

What were your favorite reads of the year?

Find my top books of 2016 here and 2015 here.

Tackling My TBR List

During November’s NaBloPoMo, I shared eight books that were on my To Be Read list. Amazingly, I’ve read five of the books since then, so I wanted to do a quick update on them.

1. Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick

This book was a disappointment for me. I was really looking forward to Anna’s quirky commentary and wit. What I got was a lot about her sex life and recreational drug use and not near enough humor. Parts I did like: learning how Anna started acting at a young age – and in theater, mostly. The first time I saw her act was in Twilight and then Pitch Perfect, so it was interesting to hear about her career before those films. She seemed to have a pretty level-headed upbringing despite being a child actor, and she certainly didn’t make money from acting until recently. That being said, I don’t think I would recommend this book. There just wasn’t anything captivating enough about it. If you feel the need to check this one out, I’d recommend the audio CD over reading the book, as Kendrick herself reads it, so at least it’s a bit more manageable. My Goodreads rating: 3 stars

2. We’ll Always Have Summer by Jenny Han  

The third book in the Summer series, We’ll Always Have Summer, picks up at the end of Belly’s freshman year of college. She and Jeremiah have been dating and even attend the same school. It all seems to be going well, but when Belly hears about a mistake Jeremiah made, she’s forced to question whether he is the right guy for her. I read this book in two days because I had to know, who would it be – Jeremiah or Conrad?! Was this a fantastic book? No. Belly was just as immature and selfish as she was in the first two books and the plot was a bit ridiculous, but it didn’t matter – I was sucked in! Jenny Han should really write a television show because her teenage drama is spot on. My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

3. Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

In Westerfeld’s Afterworlds, a young writer named Darcy decides to defer her freshman year of college so that she can move to NYC and experience life as a debut YA author. Her story as a budding writer, learning the ins and outs of the publishing industry, as well as her growth as a young adult, help her shape her manuscript about a girl who survives a terrorist attack and now has the power to “cross over” into an even better story. I bought this book a few years ago in Barnes & Noble’s clearance section, thinking it was a great price for such a huge book! Sadly, the size of the book kept me from actually getting around to reading it. As an e-book however, it was much less daunting. And, boy, am I glad I finally read it. I enjoyed both stories, though they were not as interconnected as I thought they were going to be. I really liked following Darcy’s experience as a debut author. Her story about the afterworld, which is told in the alternating chapters, is just as original and entertaining as the framing story. I’d recommend this book to fans of YA literature and people who have participated in the NaNoWriMo experience. My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Huxley’s sci-fi novel envisions a world where people are genetically engineered and brainwashed so that they are good consumers. Thanks to a society where sex is recreational and not monogamous, and drugs are always available to pick you up or wipe out lonely thoughts, everyone is happy. However, a few characters in the novel start to feel different – the basis for the book’s conflict. I think the book was probably advanced for its time, but reading it today, I found the language a bit difficult to understand. The concept of creating people (and clones of the same person) and preconditioning them was incredibly interesting and thought-provoking, but the story went in strange directions and there were some odd writing techniques. For instance, I almost had to picture it like a movie in certain sections because the author would have multiple “scenes” happening all at the same time and I had to keep up with who was talking and what they were talking about. There were some very interesting ideas about sexuality and gender roles – especially for a book published in 1932. Unfortunately, the book had a terrible ending. Terrible because it just ended abruptly without filling the reader in on how all the character’s stories were resolved. There were several main characters, but none of their stories felt finished or complete to me. While an ending like this sometimes leaves room for the reader to fill in the blanks, in this case, I wanted more information. I left not really knowing what I was supposed to make of this strange new world – other than it was certainly not the utopia it claimed to be. There were a lot of messages: the fear of taking science and technology too far, the importance of reading and education, how religion can control people and form society, how free is our free will, just to name a few. I’m sure it’d be a fascinating book to use for discussion in a book club or classroom. In all, I’m glad I finally got around to reading this book, but I’m not sure I liked it all that much. My Goodreads rating: 2 stars

5. Shadow and Bone, Book 1 of The Grisha Trilogy by Leigh Bardugo

The first book of the Grisha Trilogy begins with a trek across a dangerously dark and monster-filled area called the Shadow Fold. The main character, Alina, finds she has incredible powers that can ward off the terror of the Shadow Fold. She is sent to the royal court to be trained as an elite fighter. But the luxurious life being a powerful member of the elite isn’t what it seems. I almost gave this book a five-star rating on Goodreads, as it was pretty close to perfect. I raced to finish this one, and then was sad when I made it to the last page. The characters and world were just plain enjoyable to read about. I was hooked from the beginning and I will definitely be continuing the rest of the series. I’ve already got the next book on hold. There are many books about people who have strange powers or abilities (Graceling, Three Dark Crowns, Shatter Me, Under the Never Sky – all books I enjoyed, by the way), but this book still held its own and brought something different and interesting. I would highly recommend this book (especially if you liked the books I listed in parentheses)! My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

What books have you recently crossed off your TBR list?