Book Review

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Publisher: Dutton Books, 2019
Genre: YA Fiction
Pages: 286
Format: Paperback
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Turtles All the Way Down tells the story of Aza “Holmsey” Holmes, a high schooler attempting to solve a mystery while also struggling to co-exist with her mental illness. When fugitive billionaire Russell Pickett goes missing and a hefty reward is offered for information leading to his whereabouts, Aza’s best friend, Daisy, convinces her to investigate. Reuniting with her childhood friend (and Pickett’s son), Davis, in hopes of learning more about the case, Aza soon finds herself enamored with this kindred spirit and a relationship begins to develop.

Amidst the romance and mystery, however, Aza spends a great deal of her time trapped within her own mind. Suffering from severe OCD and anxiety, she lives with a constant fear that she will contract a fatal disease and be overrun by the bacterial colonies breeding beneath her skin. These intrusive thoughts regularly impede her daily life as she grapples with “thought spirals,” in addition to navigating the treacherous waters of friendship, romance, and sleuthing.

Thoughts

Fans of John Green’s other works will feel right at home within the pages of this book, which contains many characters and philosophies that have become classic Green staples. Turtles All the Way Down echoes The Fault in Our Stars in terms of the instant love connection between Davis and Aza, as well as the exploration of the meaning of life through untimely deaths. It is worth mentioning, however, that this is one of Green’s heavier works, as the reader spends the majority of the novel subjected to the intrusive thoughts of the protagonist. Aza spends a large portion of the novel wrestling with irrational fears and trying (and often failing) to fight her compulsions. Despite the discomfort experienced in parts of the novel, this only makes the story being told all the more important, as it provides a glimpse into the often-ignored realities of mental illness. Suffering from OCD himself, Green has remarked that this book is very personal to both himself and his experiences.

One of the most poignant aspects of this novel lies in the way Green alludes to deep, universal themes without explaining them too much. A theme explored both throughout the book and throughout Green’s writing is realizing and accepting that some things aren’t meant to be fully understood. Readers can take as much away from this book as they wish, at both a surface level and with deeper analysis of symbols and motifs.

At its core, Turtles All the Way Down sends a hopeful message, while still managing to stay true to the narrative of mental illness. Despite the sometimes darker aspects of the novel as Aza sometimes fails to grapple with her own mind, she continues to ceaselessly press on and chooses to believe that we have more control over our lives than we might believe. Turtles All the Way Down is the perfect read for those who wonder about our smallness, our vastness, and the integration of our seemingly-irreconcilable selves. The underlying sense of hope serves to soothe anxious minds and remind us that “your now is not your forever.”

Wendy Webb: The Queen of Northern Gothic

My favorite book is Jane Eyre, my second favorite being Pride and Prejudice—what can I say? I’m a classics lover.

But now, I have a third favorite book, and it’s all thanks to a magnificent new author on the scene: Wendy Webb. And spoiler alert, it’s not a classic that takes place in Regency Era England. I know, I didn’t think I could be swayed either.

But here we are.

Honestly, I am someone who has a very difficult time branching out and trying new authors. But, as with most good things in my life, I can thank my mom for this one. 

I’ve mentioned this before, but I lived on the gorgeous North Shore of Lake Superior in a quaint little city called Duluth. My second summer of living there, my parents came to visit and see what I kept raving about as “the most beautiful place in the whole world.” 

On one of our excursions, we visited the most charming little town of Grand Marais, and if you know my mom, we inevitably ended up at a bookstore. 

Not just any bookstore. A little Cape-Cod-style cottage painted in pastels that sat just a few hundred yards from the shore of the lake. Oh, and there was a donut shop right next door. I guess this is what they mean by location, location, location.

But I digress. 

In the local authors section (the best section!), she stumbled across a writer named Wendy Webb, someone who had made their debut within the last few years. Trusting the bookstore owner’s incessant praise, my mom purchased the first of many Wendy Webb books we would come to own. 

I remember being hesitant when my mom first suggested I read one of her books. See, Wendy Webb is a Northern Gothic writer—and gothic was not really a genre I tended to dive into. Remember my favorite books? But, I decided to give it a shot and cracked open her most recent novel, Daughters of the Lake. She was a local author after all. 

Best. Decision. Ever. 

While I typically think of mystery/gothic novels as being contrived, Webb was inventive and played with the well-loved framework brilliantly. Instead of being overly-predictable and cheesy, Webb created a believable world that left me guessing until the last chapter. Where I expected flat characters with flatter relationships, Webb breathed raw and wonderful life into every character that graced the pages of her novels. 

But fair warning, her ability to bring a story to life also left me with a fear of turning off the lights some nights. In the best way. 

In the end though, what I found so exciting was that each novel took place along the North Shore of Lake Superior, some even in Duluth—though under different names. It was like a world that she created just for me, because I could envision every town and building she spoke of, having been there myself. 

And so, maybe I’m romanticizing an author because she sets her books so beautifully along the shore I love most in the world—but maybe, just maybe, she really is all I say she is. 

I guess it’s up to you to decide. 


For more information about Wendy Webb, click here.

Wendy Webb’s Full Works: The Tale of Halcyon Crane, The Fate of Mercy Alban, The Vanishing, The End of Temperance Dare, Daughters of the Lake

Book Review

Check Me Out by Becca Wilhite

Publisher: Shadow Mountain, 2018
Genre: Proper Romance
Pages: 358
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Greta’s best friend Will promises that he always delivers on her birthday presents, and this year he out-does himself, fulfilling her wish for a perfect boyfriend. While Greta is shelving books at her job as an assistant librarian, Will arranges for her to meet his cousin, Mac, who is single, incredibly attractive, and even seems obviously interested in Greta, based on his adorably poetic texts.

Greta falls for Mac quickly, enjoying the free hot chocolate at the cafe where he works and his clear interest in her, but she can’t help but wonder why he is always so much better at expressing himself in texts. Busy with research and planning various events to save her beloved library from impending foreclosure, Greta has to recognize what she really wants and whether she is willing to go far enough to get it.

Thoughts

Honestly, I was afraid this book was going to be too cliché, but it surprised me in a great way. I ended up reading it all in one sitting, not even just to see how Greta’s relationship would end up, but also because her character arc was so compelling.

In Check Me Out, Becca Wilhite crafts a charming world where Greta takes the reader between the library and the cafe with increasingly more dramatic stakes and powerful recognitions. The romance is not as uncomplicated as it seems from Greta and Mac’s immediate mutual attractions in the first chapter, and Greta’s purposeful choices provide a sense of more weighty thematic elements than just “and they lived happily ever after.”

Greta has poignant interactions with her mother and the library neighbor Mr. Greenwood, and her friend Marigold is simply delightful in her memorable appearances on the page. In the end, the only aspect that felt too cliché was Mac’s relatively flat character, though I fully acknowledge that that was part of the point of his presentation in the novel. Even with that minor wish for more depth, I still really enjoyed this book! You should all go check it out!


I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a good, clean romance, especially all those who can see themselves as readers who are dedicated enough to do anything to save their town’s library.


Book Review

The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

Translated by Tiina Nunnally

Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 296
Format: Paperback
Series: Minnesota Trilogy
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

The first of Sundstøl’s Minnesota Trilogy, The Land of Dreams takes place along Minnesota’s northern shore of Lake Superior. When local policeman and genealogist Lance Hansen encounters a brutal murder of a Norwegian tourist, Georg Loftus, the surrounding towns are equally horrified and in awe—as they believe it to be the first murder ever recorded on the North Shore.

However, as Hansen begins to unearth more about the North Shore’s past, he begins to wonder if it is in fact the first murder. Regardless, he soon discovers an unbreakable tie that links him to Georg Loftus’s murder, leaving Lance to question everything he once knew to be moral—and more importantly, how the ties of loyalty shape his morality.

Thoughts

As luck would have it, I came upon this book while wandering through an old used-bookstore along the North Shore of Minnesota. Having lived in Duluth for almost two years, and in that time explored much of the North Shore, I had the privilege of knowing exactly where Sundstøl set his story—right down to the beloved pizza shop in Grand Marais called “Sven and Ole’s.”

For me, it was so fun and very special to be able to read a book and be able to follow along with the characters so acutely, bringing my own personal experiences with the Shore into the reading.

I thought Sundstøl did an exceptional job of capturing the spirit of small North Shore towns like Grand Marais, Grand Portage, and Tofte. But that is just the beginning of his wonderful work. I thoroughly enjoyed the story Sundstøl wove. Complicated as it was, I never once found myself confused or muddled in the stories or characters. It made to be a riveting read, and I cannot wait to pick up the second book in the trilogy.

Sundstøl lived on the North Shore, so he is very knowledgeable of the area, and, at times, his book can feel a bit academic. His ability to explain the history is incredible and interesting. That being said, there were a few paragraphs I simply scanned because I wanted to move on with the story. Send me off to literary jail!

Nevertheless, the history Sundstøl provides is not only interesting, but very important to the story, and I am so grateful he included it in the work. I only suggest that readers have a bit of patience when it comes to a dense part in the novel, as the outcome is extremely worth it.

Due to some graphic descriptions and delicate subject matter, I would suggest this book be read at a high school level or above.

If you’re looking for a great mystery that will also teach you more about one of America’s most beautiful regions, I cannot recommend Vidar Sundstøl’s The Land of Dreams highly enough.

Book Review

Atlantia by Ally Condie

Publisher: Dutton Books, 2014
Genre: Dystopian YA novel
Pages: 320
Format: Hardback
Buy Local
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Feeling trapped as a hidden siren in the underwater world of Atlantia and forever recognized as the daughter of the beloved deceased leader Oceana, Rio Conwy is desperate to go Above. But her twin sister Bay unexpectedly chooses to go Above instead, without leaving an explanation. Heartbroken and alone, Rio is forced to find answers from the only family she has left—her mother’s sister Maire, the dangerous siren.

As Rio attempts to find out why her sister left and to get Above herself, she discovers secrets and truths about her family and herself, and the Divide system now separating her from Bay. Rio learns to recognize the strength in her own voice through unexpected ways as she unearths the past and determines her future.

Thoughts

Admittedly, Ally Condie is one of my favorite YA authors, so I was a little biased in favor of Atlantia when I chose it off the shelf. However, even for those unfamiliar with Condie’s other award-winning work, Matched, this stand-alone bestseller is sure to be a satisfying read. Though Rio’s story presents serious themes that are handled justly, the narrative retains a feeling of enjoyable entertainment throughout. In particular, the races in the deepmarket have a pleasantly exciting rhythm. The style of the narration flows and fits well with the subject matter, and the ending is appropriate without being unrealistic.

The romantic relationships in this book were paced well, although some of their dialogue and scenes came off somewhat stilted. The romance was the weakest narrative aspect for me personally. The dynamics between family members or friends felt more natural and engaging. In particular, I felt that the difficult decisions at the end for Rio and Bay were well structured, showing the progress and strength in their connection from the beginning when Rio’s world was ripped apart by Bay not explaining beforehand why she had to go Above.


I would recommend this book to any YA reader who enjoys page-turning dystopian fantasies with beautiful world-building and expert character development.


Book Review

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
Buy Local
My Ratings: 5/5 stars

Summary

Outside a small town on the North Carolina coast, Kya Clark’s family abandons her in a shack on the marshland, where she must learn to survive on her own, living off of the land she admires and studies. For years, rumors and prejudice follow Kya, known as the uneducated, wild “Marsh Girl.”

When two men from town become entranced by her wild beauty, Kya decides to open her heart to the vulnerability of love—only to find herself hurt and in pain.

After the town’s beloved quarterback, Chase Andrews, is found dead, townspeople point fingers at “Marsh Girl,” the suspicious figure that looms behind the twists and turns of the marsh’s waterways. How did Chase Andrews die? Was it murder? And if so, did Kya have anything to do with his death?

Thoughts

This coming-of-age story is my favorite book of the summer so far. It’s hard for me to characterize this book—other than to say it is a work of coming-of-age fiction. In some ways it is a mystery, revolving around the suspicious death of Chase Andrews and borrowing tricks from the crime fiction genre. In other ways it’s a romance, but it only offers small glimpses into Kya’s relationships with the two townie boys. Owens chose to focus more on the development of Kya and pain the men caused her. Still, in other ways, it has some elements of a young adult book, where Kya learns about menstruation and womanhood from a wise woman named Mabel. However, it targets a more mature audience in its commentary on human behavior, especially that of sexuality and violence. I think the fact that Owens borrows elements and storytelling strategies from so many different genres makes her work more compelling. Her story isn’t confined by one specific genre expectation.

The novel is a nonlinear narrative, containing switchbacks between Kya’s story growing up in the marsh and the discovery of Chase Andrews’ body (and subsequent investigation and court trial). Although date-jumbling like this can be a risky writing choice, I think Owens executed her plan perfectly. It was easy to jump between the two story strands, and I felt that she switched between the two parts of the story at the right moments, keeping me interested and not letting me forget about one narrative strand or the other. She never lost me once in all of the switchbacks, but I can’t say the same for some of the other books I’ve read that use this technique!

The protagonist, Kya Clark lives mostly in isolation with only the landscape to keep her company throughout much of the narrative. It was interesting to see a character like this learn to open up to other people and try to apply her knowledge of other creatures to her understanding of humanity.

The one critique I had was about the poetry of Amanda Hamilton that is intertwined throughout the novel. To me, the poems seem a bit trite and on the nose, but I believe this is forgivable once you reach the story’s conclusion. I’m jumping around a spoiler here, but the unexpected ending ties the novel together and answered my remaining questions, leaving me feeling satisfied with the story.

Because the book borrows from so many different genres and explores such an interesting protagonist, I suspect many fiction lovers will adore this beautifully-crafted novel.

A Thousand Lives: How Books Connect Us to Our World and Beyond

As readers, we live double lives—the first as individuals who exist within the confines of reality, the second as incessant travelers. 

My library, ever-growing and changing through the years, has taken me across different universes. From large-scale battles between humans and High Fae, to adventures with sword-bearing demigods, to life-altering cab rides with a driver carrying messages. The destinations and layovers are endless, yet the vehicle remains the same: books.

Fantasy writer George R.R. Martin once explained, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…The man who never reads lives only one.” But books do more than connect us to other fictional lives. They also connect us to our own lives in the real world.

Today, I’d like to share just a few small—but powerful—ways in which books have personally connected me to the world.

Exchanges

From lending out well-loved copies of Harry Potter in exchange for Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, to borrowing a roommate’s graphic novel collection of The Last Airbender in exchange for Brandon Sanderson’s original Mistborn trilogy, book exchanges have strengthened my relationships in incredible ways. In fact, I like to think that my roommate became a close confidant largely because of our shared evenings filled with animated book discussions.

Recently, I participated in an online book exchange that I stumbled upon on Instagram. I sat with a close friend of mine over frozen yogurt and scattered stationary as we wrote letters to our respective recipients. The experience was a firm reminder of how book reading can enrich existing friendships, as well as provide hope for a new one that is waiting to form.

Reminders of Strength

As a lover of literature, books have been more than a way to pass the time—they have smoothed things over for me both in turbulent times and in the chaos of travel; I imagine this rings true for all of you self-proclaimed book worms. 

Traveling has been embedded in my identity the very moment I stuffed my belongings into a bright red suitcase seven years ago. When my family and I left my small Philippine hometown to pursue a better life in the United States, the very act of traveling suddenly took the connotation of hard goodbyes and painful memories.

What helped me during the moving process itself was what came inside that bright red suitcase. Stuffed in its main compartment were bits from home: my grandmother’s rosary, printed photos from my childhood, pressed flowers from our home garden. And in the front pocket, situated there entirely for accessibility, was my copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.

Mariam and Laia’s story has always inspired me, but right then, it was different. It was a more immersive experience; I took all of my anxiety and dismay and allowed them to suspend momentarily. Instead, I dove deep into a story of turmoil paired with healing. As I folded myself into the uncomfortable airplane seat, I was able to draw irrevocable strength from the characters’ experiences of loss, pain, and ultimately, powerful recovery.

Sources of Comfort

Whenever I set out on a journey, I always ensure at least one thing makes it onto my agenda: a trip to a new bookstore.

My trip to San Francisco comes to mind most readily. As I explored City Lights Bookstore, I felt a keen and deep sense of belonging upon seeing titles that promised paths to different universes—titles that allowed me to brave the unfamiliar and terrifying in more accessible (yet still exhilarating) ways. In books, I found the stepping stones I needed towards courage.

So, although traveling—especially when it entails abandoning the familiar—is never a comforting experience, books have given me an avenue out of the uncertainty and discomfort: a way to ground myself in familiarity for when I inevitably travel again.

***

Through books, I have seen places of pure fantasy come to life; I have learned new ways to make closer bonds out of my friendships, to look at wrenching pain as a story of redemption, and to find comfort even in the most frightening places.

In reading, we get to live the only way we should: fully, completely, and—if we’re lucky—a thousand times.


Guest blog post courtesy of Arni Dizon.

Book Review

Family of Origin by CJ Hauser

Publisher: Doubleday Books, 2019
Genre: Fiction novel
Pages: 283
Format: Paperback
Buy Local
My Rating: 4/5 stars

Summary

On hearing that their biologist father Dr. Ian Grey has died, estranged half-siblings Nolan and Elsa Grey reunite. They travel to his island research station and become acquainted with his team, the Reversalists, who study a duck species in an attempt to prove their theory of reverse evolution.

While learning about and searching for the “Paradise Duck” for which their father had been preoccupied, they also learn about their own “family of origin,” uncovering various layers of family secrets and complications. With flashbacks and foreshadowing, Hauser illustrates the complication that comes with determining how much of the past should affect the future.

Thoughts

To be honest, the first time I attempted to read this book, I failed to get through it. I think this is perhaps because I was not in the right frame of mind to make sense of Hauser’s web of themes and stylistic choices. The flashbacks and foreshadowing tell compelling backstories, but are also more complicated to read than a traditionally chronological narrative. I also particularly struggled with her decision to not separate dialogue with quotation marks. This made the conversational flow difficult for me personally to follow.

That being said, I felt like what redeemed this book was its layering of familial secrets, histories, and relationships. This made the characters feel real and the narrative more engaging. As a reader, I wanted the estranged siblings to find out more about their past which would help them to connect in the present. It was interesting to consider family dynamics in relation to the evolutionary theories posited in the novel.

I would recommend this book to adult readers who like learning about backstories, histories, and scientific theories—and who do not mind the absence of dialogue quotes.


Thanks to the author and publisher for providing an ARC in
exchange for this honest and unbiased review.

Book Review

Bully Love by Patricia Colleen Murphy

Publisher: Press 53, April 2019
Genre: Poetry
Pages: 84
Format: Paperback
Buy Local

Summary

Winner of the 2019 Press 53 Award for Poetry, Patricia Colleen Murphy shares her journey from Ohio to Arizona in her latest book, Bully Love.

The collection offers glimpses into the harsh but beautiful Sonoran Desert, painful but important memories, and an unexpected but powerful love for landscape and people.

Amidst the many life changes—from Ohio twisters to Arizona monsoons, childhood to adulthood, and solitude to love—the poet examines how she finds peace and beauty in spite of hardships, including death and grief, as she leaves a broken home behind to build up a new life.

Thoughts

Although I consider myself to be more of a fiction junkie than anything else, a few poetry collections have found their way onto my bookshelves. Usually these collections sit on my shelves for years as I pick away at them one poem at a time. A poem here during a stressful finals week. A poem there to break up my reading flow during the hot summer months.

Reading Bully Love was a different poetry experience for me as I read it in its entirety (and even reread some of the poems) over a few short hours. I really appreciated the curation of this collection. Although each poem captures a specific scene or memory, they each clearly belong together to explain the poet’s transition from Ohio to Arizona. There’s a contrast between these two different landscapes that’s mirrored in other areas of the book: having parents and being parentless, being alone and finding a companion, remembering childhood and reflecting on adulthood. I think it’s this contrast in both the moments and scenery that tie the poems together and kept me reading.

I found the most haunting—and perhaps most revealing—poem to be “Tell Your Story Walking,” where the poet admits,

There are two ways to tell a story.

When I was fifteen you went mad and I saved you.

When I was fifteen you went mad and I never forgave you.

This collection embraces all of life—both the suffering and happiness it brings—bravely and without being timid. Although Murphy grapples with some difficult topics in many of her poems—such as loss, loneliness, and madness—the poems are still very digestible because of the imagery she couples these topics with. By sharing descriptions of the landscape and those who inhabit it, the poems make reflecting on life’s hardships feel more manageable.

As a fellow Arizonan hiker, I absolutely loved the landscape imagery and was even able to recognize some of the desert locations described. I think the writing brings the Sonoran Desert to life almost as a character of sorts. It was interesting to see how place, especially the desert, is so important to these poems. In fact, many of the poems’ titles are place names, reflecting the importance of the land in these shared memories.

I suspect that I’ll return to this collection soon—if not to read it in full, then to tuck a poem or two away for a stressful week, or a change of pace, or a reminder that unexpected beauty can be found even in hardship.

Book Review

Just for Clicks by Kara McDowell

Publisher: Amberjack Publishing, 2019
Genre: Young Adult Literature
Pages: 343
Format: Paperback
Buy local
My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

Though everyone on the Internet thinks Claire Dixon is “life goals,” she isn’t sure how long she can keep having her life on display—but with her mom Ashley’s famous blog and her twin Poppy’s commitment to their social media influence, she doesn’t feel like she has much of a choice.

With viral videos, stolen secrets, and critical choices, Claire navigates how to let herself be “just Claire.” This insightful read follows her journey to recognize that life shouldn’t be “just for clicks,” revealing that under the surface of this teen Internet star’s life is the depth of real emotions and the courage of personal discovery.

Thoughts

Being a twin from Arizona, I expected to relate to this narrative superficially; what I did not expect was to feel so much genuine emotion during what I assumed would be a light read. The heart-wrenching account with discovery of family and oneself felt powerfully real.

I thought that the themes and messages were particularly relevant and poignant. Claire, the narrator, provides an honest look into a high schooler trying to find her own identity through all the likes and texts.

Beyond suggesting that no online profile, no matter how perfect, provides an accurate picture into reality, Claire’s journey explores the choices that each of us as young adults have to make in today’s society, including when to go with family and when to find your own path, when to forgive and when to say no, when to make eye contact, and when to press delete.

For anyone familiar with the experience of high school in the Valley of the Sun, this book will be a treat for its accurate portrayal of Gilbert and the surrounding area. The descriptions are both strikingly beautiful and impressively accurate.