Book Review

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

Publisher: Dial Press
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Summary

This story is about a set of fraternal twins, Noah and Jude, as they begin to navigate young adulthood. The two share a love for art—but  Noah is very open about sharing his artistic ability, while Jude tends to keep her talent to herself. Despite being extremely close as children, their relationship begins to shift as tensions rise in each of their personal lives. Further pressuring them is the impending application deadline for a prestigious art school that both twins applied to. 

As their lives progress, Noah and Jude are each faced with their own set of challenges that push them further away from one another. In addition, they begin to lose sight of their own identities. Just as it appears that things couldn’t get any worse, an unanticipated disaster strikes, changing both of their lives in the aftermath. Will something—or someone—bring them back together?

Thoughts

This novel was recommended to me by one of my close friends. I had never heard of it, and as such dove in without many preconceived expectations. To my excitement, the novel was not slow to start and it wasn’t long before I was fully immersed in the stories of each of the two protagonists. Both were very accessible characters, mostly because of the book’s multi-narrative format. Reading from each character’s point of view added a lot of relatability to the novel—I was able to empathize with both Noah and Jude and became invested in each of their stories. 

Perhaps one of my favorite components of this story was the way art was used to develop the theme of personal identity. Throughout the novel, art is something both of the twins use as a form of self-expression and communication. However, Noah and Jude are both dynamic characters—and their relationship to artwork changes as part of their development. At the beginning of the story, both use art as a way to express themselves, privately. By the end of the novel, each character has learned to use art to communicate who they are as people and as a mode to display how they want to be seen. I loved reading as each of the characters experienced this shift in perspective. It even influenced the way I viewed my own ideas concerning creative expression. 

Adding to the novel’s magic are many beautiful quotes riddled throughout. One of the most notable is “We were all heading for each other on a collision course, no matter what. Maybe some people are just meant to be in the same story.” In the context of the story, this signifies that fate may play a role in Noah and Jude’s relationship. No matter how hard they try to distance themselves from one another, they continue to be pulled back together by some unseen force. Although this may not be the case for all real-life relationships, I think it serves as an interesting examination of what causes some people to fall back into each other’s lives, no matter the circumstance.

I removed half a star from my rating of this book because it romanticizes life a little bit too much for my taste at some points. Although it was a great escape from reality, there are some parts of the story that are too overtly chauvinistic to take seriously. I do think the story offers a lot of profound insight on the meaning of life and relationships—but some are too whimsical to buy into. That being said, the moments where the book misses the mark are few and far between, and it didn’t impact the story’s readability at all. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a thought-provoking and heartwarming story. 

Author Interview with Novelist Stephanie Elliot

Meet Stephanie Elliot, local author of A Little Bit of Everything, and more prominently known for her recent novel, Sad Perfect. T/W, her novel is inspired by her daughter’s experience with ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder). I had the pleasure of speaking with her about the novel, her current read, and more!

  1. From what I understand, your novel, Sad Perfect, was written while your daughter went through treatment for ARFID. Where did the idea to write about the experience come from and how did it affect the way you handled the situation?
    Yes, I did write Sad Perfect as my daughter was diagnosed with ARFID. I didn’t anticipate ever writing a young adult novel; my others have been more along the lines of women’s fiction. But when she was diagnosed and in an intense therapy program, I spent a lot of time across the street at a coffee shop and started writing it. It was so therapeutic for me to write as I was dealing with certain feelings of my own as well.
  1. This novel is based on your real-life experience with your daughter. How did this experience translate to the novel? That is, how did you balance actual events and the fictitious elements?
    As for the balancing of fact with fiction—everything in the book that has to do with how ARFID affects the person and her family is true to what my daughter and our family experienced with her ARFID. However, there are many fictionalized scenes. The book might have been very boring without them. While it’s true that my daughter did meet a boy rafting on the Salt River, she didn’t have a long term relationship with him like Pea and Ben did. My daughter also did not get admitted to the pysch ward in real life. Some discussions in the book about ARFID (like the first meeting with Shayna, the therapist) are almost identical to the conversations my daughter had with her therapist in real life. I wanted to put a face on ARFID, to let others know about it and share the real aspects of this disorder, while also ‘inventing’ some other stuff to make it more interesting.
  1. Sad Perfect is actually your second novel and differs a bit from your first, A Little Bit of Everything Lost. Aside from your experience with your daughter, did anything else inspire this change?
    As I said above, I hadn’t set out to write young adult. I had written and self-published A Little Bit of Everything Lost and several other more adult books and had no plan for YA. My daughter was the sole inspiration for making the change to young adult novels. I had been stuck writing a couple other adult books and then when the idea of Sad Perfect came out, it just poured out of me and I couldn’t NOT write it.
  1. Going along with the previous question, how has your approach to writing changed over the years?
    I have a really really really HORRIBLE approach to writing. I don’t do it steadily. I wish I was more disciplined in my writing, but I haven’t written a big chunk of anything in a really long time. But I’m not being hard on myself. Other stuff has gotten in the way: family issues, now Coronavirus—but, I feel that when it hits me again, when I get a really good story idea and start it, then it will roll out of me. I just wait and anticipate that I will be able to do it again someday, hopefully soon!
  1. Do you have any ideas or plans for another novel at this time?
    Yes, I would like to write a novel about a teen boy with mental health issues and severe depression who overcomes a lot. That’s all I’ve got so far so I better start thinking or maybe if I start writing it, stuff will appear on the page! 
  1. What advice do you have to writers working towards being published?
    Connect with other writers in any way that you can. Ask them for advice. Sit down and write. Never throw away anything that you think is not good writing—you can delete it, but keep these ‘trashed’ scenes in a file on your laptop—it might inspire something later! Also, do the work. If you want to get traditionally published, you need to finish your book, edit your book, share your book with people you trust, write a query letter, find an agent who will then hopefully find you a publisher! Sad Perfect was about my fourth or fifth completed manuscript before I was traditionally published. It takes thick skin and a lot of work and a lot of rejection to become a writer. Anticipate and appreciate the rejections because they bring you closer to the YES!
  1. And lastly, we like to ask all of our featured authors to share their current read. Are you reading anything right now that you would recommend?
    I just read STRUNG OUT by Erin Khar which is an amazing and inspiring memoir about how she overcame addiction. And, I just got the advance copy of Emily Giffin’s THE LIES THAT BIND. I love, love, love everything Emily writes and usually drop everything in life to start her books when they come out!

I really enjoyed working and speaking with Elliot, she has a lot of wisdom to share! Prior to the COVID-19 closures, she was the Writer in Residence at Tempe Library, so definitely keep an eye out when things open back up! I highly recommend everyone read Sad Perfect if interested, it is deeply honest and beautifully written. You can purchase it from Changing Hands Bookstore here.

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.”

Book Review

Destroy All Monsters by Sam J. Miller

Publisher: Harper Tee
Genre: Young Adult
Pages: 394
Format: Hardcover
My Rating: 5/5

Summary

Destroy All Monsters, by Sam J. Miller, is a book with its feet in two worlds. In one world, Ash is as normal as any other teenager fighting to protect her homeless best friend, Solomon, who is on the verge of being swallowed up by the system. In the other world, Solomon rides on an allosaurus and believes Ash to be a princess in hiding with dormant magical powers that can save the world. While their perception of reality is vastly different, there is something that their worlds have in common—they are plagued by a secretive group spreading hate and divisive attitudes through vandalism, targeting those who are already marginalized. All the while, the story is driven by a mystery—what happened between Solomon and Ash when they were twelve that put them on their present course?

Thoughts

This book is incredibly imaginative and ambitious in its form. It is told from both Ash and Solomon’s perspective, though each of them view the world very differently. Subsequently, scenes are revisited and replayed, however, the result is anything but repetitive. Reading this book is like listening to a concept album that continuously finds ways to integrate a thematic melody in fresh and exciting ways! It has a memory of its own, and it comes alive to create a nearly interactive experience for the reader. 

While I would not describe reading this book as anything less than fun, it also finds a way to deal with some pretty heavy issues. Chief among them is the way that it addresses the relationship between trauma and mental health, and the way that it explores the spectrum of homelessness in a way that goes beyond static perceptions of the community. Most importantly, at least in my opinion, it also lays out a blueprint for unifying communities against the divisive rhetoric  that has become so prevalent as of late.  

Destroy All Monsters is a book of immense power and imagination. In its pages there is an adventure to be seized, mysteries to be solved, and worlds to immerse yourself in; but, there is also an examination of community and our responsibility to take care of one another. For these reasons, I cannot recommend this book enough. 

Book Review

Just for Clicks by Kara McDowell

Publisher: Amberjack Publishing, 2019
Genre: Young Adult Literature
Pages: 343
Format: Paperback
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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.