Review – Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno

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This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading a soon-to-be-released book. One of my favorite things about book blogging is getting to read amazing books before they come out, and Sarno’s Just Under the Clouds is exactly that.

Always think in threes and you’ll never fall, Cora’s father told her when she was a little girl. Two feet, one hand. Two hands, one foot. That was all Cora needed to know to climb the trees of Brooklyn.

But now Cora is a middle schooler, a big sister, and homeless. Her mother is trying to hold the family together after her father’s death, and Cora must look after her sister, Adare, who’s just different, their mother insists. Quick to smile, Adare hates wearing shoes, rarely speaks, and appears untroubled by the question Cora can’t help but ask: How will she find a place to call home?

After their room at the shelter is ransacked, Cora’s mother looks to an old friend for help, and Cora finally finds what she has been looking for: Ailanthus altissima, the “tree of heaven,” which can grow in even the worst conditions. It sets her on a path to discover a deeper truth about where she really belongs.

Just Under the Clouds will take root in your heart and blossom long after you’ve turned the last page.

Just Under the Clouds is middle-grade fiction, which I don’t usually read, but as I’m switching out of the music room and into the English classroom, I’m making a concerted effort to fix that. And something I’ve realized as I’m making that effort? A good book is a good book–regardless of its intended audience–is a good book.

Just Under the Clouds intrigued me from the start. Cora’s voice is authentic. It feels real and it feels like the voice of a young teenager/preteen.  So often in fiction, children speak too much like adults. I’m guilty of this in my own writing, as well. But as someone who spends several hours a day with teenagers, I know how teens should talk. I know the thoughts that young teens have every day. I know how they function. And it’s clear that Sarno does, as well. (Or she has a really good editor. But I’m going to give Sarno the credit here.)

Cora’s story is sad. From the opening of the book it’s sad and heavy and there is little hope. Cora finds the beautiful things in life and in nature, but at the end of the day, it’s apparent that Cora and her family are returning home to a shelter, to temporary housing. Cora is still mourning the death of her father. Cora isn’t doing well in school. And she is forced to play surrogate parent to her younger sister with an unstated mental exceptionality. (I assume she is on the autism spectrum, but it’s never explicitly stated.) It was tough to read, even as an adult. But it was important.

Something I really love about Just Under the Clouds is that it’s a story that needs to be told. It’s important to be told. Sarno has given a voice to people who don’t typically have a voice in fiction. And she’s done it masterfully. She’s done it artfully. And she’s done it in such a way that the readers are able to put themselves in Cora’s shoes. The reader is able to feel empathy—not pity—for Cora and her family.

“Home is more than a place. It is a feeling. Of warmth and security. Of love and stability. That no matter what we face out there, in here, we will always be looked after.”

The opening letter of this book—written by Julia Maguire, an editor at Knopf—tells the reader from the beginning that this book is about finding home. And that home is about a lot more than just having somewhere to sleep at night. This, alone, is an important lesson for anybody to learn. As a teacher, I know many, many students who do not feel at home in their own houses. Safety, security, and stability are just as important as having a roof over your head.

Just Under the Clouds opens in the middle of Cora’s story, which is something I really love. I love when the book opens and the reader is thrown into the fray of day-to-day life. I don’t like exposition. I don’t like back story. Eventually I want it, but not at once. I want to love the characters before I learn why they’re the people that they are.

Cora starts the book in a tree, watching her little sister, Adare. When her mother calls, she quickly descends and prepares to meet her mom, with Adare in tow. Except Adare is holding her breath and refuses to let it out. From Cora’s commentary, it appears that this is a regular occurrence. And this is a theme that runs throughout the book. The breath holding is important and it matters.

Another thing I love about Sarno’s writing is how everything matters. Everything in this story is important and returns later. She’s very much like J.K. Rowling that way. She’s a very smart storyteller.

As the story unfolds, we see Cora fail math. This is not uncommon in students—even brilliant students—whose needs aren’t being met. Maslow theorized that students had to have their needs of food and security and stability met before any learning could take place. And after seven years in the classroom, I believe he was onto something.

We also see Cora make her first true friend, a drifter of a very different nature named Sabina. Sabina grew up on a houseboat, floating from port to port, existing in her family unit and never attending public school. Her life is very unlike Cora’s. Her life is very like Cora’s.

Just Under the Clouds is peppered with little hints of the issues that come with homelessness, issues that don’t occur to most people. In the middle of the story, Adare and Cora are enjoying an after-school snack. When Adare doesn’t finish her peanut better, Cora feels obligated to eat it, merely so it won’t go to waste. This very subtle detail hit me hard. This is real life. And this is real life every day for students I come into contact with daily.

This is daily life for hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. It’s heartbreaking.

But stories like this offer hope.

I’m excited to stock this book in my classroom library. Many of my students have never considered what life is like on “the other side.” Most of the students I teach have never been homeless or had want for anything. They’ve never missed a meal or spent a night in temporary housing. And that’s okay. But because they’ve never had these experiences, chances are they’ve never reflected on experiences like this. It’s their privilege.

Before anybody gets their feathers ruffled: yes, I believe in privilege. I believe I’m privileged. I believe that everybody has varying degrees of privilege. And I think it’s important to understand and identify our innate privilege. Everybody’s is different. Everybody’s brings something unique and special to our society.

But it’s there. It’s real. It’s a thing that has to be acknowledged. It’s so well-written; it will make a great read for any middle grade reader, or a fantastic read aloud to younger readers. Take this opportunity to educate yourself and your children about the issues that others face.

I’m excited to share this book with you and with my students. I think Sarno has told a story that’s important.

Just Under the Clouds by Melissa Sarno will be available June 5, 2018 at all major book retailers. Pick yourself up a copy ASAP.

Plucky’s rating?

4 out of 5 stars.

Review – Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman

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Today, I am sitting in a lovely little coffeeshop between a rehearsal and a performance. I think I have spent more time, collectively, in coffee shops than anywhere else in my entire life. And I’m perfectly okay with this fact.

Sitting today, I have a little time to reflect the book that I finished yesterday.

Call Me By Your Name is not a book I would describe as lovely. (Which is shocking, I know. That’s my standard adjective for a book I love.) But it was a beautiful, moving, and touching story.

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I didn’t know really anything about this book going into it. I knew that it had been recently made into a film. I knew that it was considered for a lot of awards. And that’s the extent of my knowledge. Needless to say, I was not prepared for the emotional onslaught that came as I read this book.

Call Me By Your Name is the tale of Elio, a young Italian boy whose family owns a villa where they host writers who are working on new works. The writer of this summer is a beautiful man named Oliver with whom Elio is nearly immediately smitten. Immediately, the age gap between the two is noticeable. It’s a chasm that seems insurmountable when the book opens. Elio is 17 while Oliver is 24.

The book that follows is about the relationship these two men develop. It’s not your typical romance novel, and it really is like nothing else I’ve reviewed from this blog. It is intense. It’s about the intense emotions people feel when they first discover true sexuality and infatuation. It was about lust and raw attraction.

But it was also about the 80s. And about life in the 80s. And about being gay in the 80s.

Not so spoiler alert: Oliver and Elio do get together in this book. And they must do so in secret. It is the 80s, after all, and the world was not nearly as accepting of homosexuality as it is today (which is saying a lot, considering how non-accepting some place still are.)

But so much of this novel is just awkward. I read most of this book with an uncomfortable feeling in my gut. Part of it, I’m sure, is my very conservative view of sex. I am a good, southern boy after all. Sex should only be euphemized; never discussed directly. (I know. I’m bizarre. But that’s not a secret to me.)

Part of it is the apparent age gap. There is a huge difference between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old. At those ages, seven years seems like a generation of difference, even if Elio is the most mature teenager who’s ever existed.

Elio seems to obsess over Oliver for much of the novel. For all of the novel, in fact. And I get it. I can remember being unable to shake feelings I’ve had about people. It was real, too real. I never want to relive adolescence again. (I mean, seriously, I teach teenagers every day. I never want to relive adolescence.) But Call Me By Your Name made me do so in a nearly tangible way. I could connect with Elio and understand what he was feeling.

Unfortunately, Call Me Be Your Name does not tie up in a sweet little boy. Every string is still dangling. Ever knot is undone. And that is hard for me. I want more closure than this book offers.

All this seems like a bad review, right? But no. I loved it. It made me uncomfortable. It made me queasy. But it was a great book. It was a wonderful read. It was thought-provoking. It was modern stream of consciousness and it was twisted and it was different for me.

It’s not a book that’s for everybody, but I’m definitely grateful that I read it.

Plucky’s rating?

4/5 stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – The Mothers by Brit Bennett

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This weekend, I spent a few hours with a good book, a few cups of tea, and a warm blanket. This kind of ultimate relaxation is rare for me; I work the equivalent of two jobs and I’m usually too ADHD to sit still and read a book straight through for any length of time.

But something about the end of spring break prompted me to get in one more book and to make the most of it. So naturally, I read a really relaxing, not at all emotionally taxing book about nothing heavy or deep at all. Because I’m known for reading really chill reads. Or, you know, I read a very heavy, amazingly written book that almost made me cry, but not quite.

I’m sure I’ve spoken about this before, but I love heavy books. I want a book to make me cry. I want my world to be shattered, broken, swept up, glued back together in a different way, and to change completely because I’ve read a book. There’s something beautiful about a book that inspires this deep, painful, visceral reaction. I want a book to make me cry. I’m a literary masochist, what can I say?

Trigger warning: This book and this review openly discuss abortion, as it is central to the plot of this novel.

So this weekend, I chilled out with Brit Bennett’s The Mothers: A Novel.

The Mothers, at its surface is about a young girl, Nadia, who’s dealing with life after the death of her mother. It chronicles the relationship of 17-year-old Nadia and 21-year-old Luke Sheppard, the pastor’s son. Early in the book, Nadia discovers that she is pregnant. Nadia decides to have an abortion and asks Luke to pay for it. The story that follows is a tale of love and loss and heartbreak and female friendship. It’s a story of what could have been and what might be. It’s complex, with all the characters being so closely tied together, it’s hard to tell where one begins and another ends. I love storylines that are interwoven like that.

The most interesting part of this book, in my opinion, is the Greek chorus of church ladies who open each chapter. These women are The Mothers of the church. They watch from a distance and assess the situation and gossip about the people in the church. They are pseudo-narrators of the novel, piecing together the events of the story just too late. The Mothers help propel the story forward by filling in the gaps left by events of the story.

Something else I love about this book is the timeline. The story starts when Nadia is 17 years old and doesn’t conclude until she is in her thirties.  I love extended timelines. (I also love really condensed timelines, like 24 hours.) I love that we get to see how the events from the beginning effect the rest of Nadia and Luke’s entire lives. I love that we see how their lives push apart and pull together several times in their lives.

I loved the writing style of this book. I loved how easy it was to read and how captivating the storyline was. I also love that I never fell in love with Nadia. I regularly say that I don’t have to like a character to want to know their story, and this is a prime example. Nadia is not necessarily a forgivable or likable character, and neither is Luke. In fact, the only redeeming character, in my opinion, is Aubrey. I’d read more about Aubrey, were that an option.

Overall, The Mothers was a quick, deep, heart-wrenching read. It spoke on important themes–like the destructive nature of secrets–and provided a commentary on abortion, both the internal complexities of it and the societal views. It was enthralling; it was a page turner. It was a wonderful read to end Spring Break with.

There are obviously some trigger warnings to accompany this book. This book deals closely with abortion and there are suggestions of violence. But this book is totally worth the read.

I hope you’ll give it a read!

Plucky’s Rating? 4.5 stars.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

 

 

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Review – Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of turning 30 and then immediately throwing out my back. It was exactly as much fun as you can imagine. Lying on the couch with no WiFi for hours on end until the repairman could come out. Staring into the void and pondering life’s great questions: Why are we here? Why do we love? Where does that other sock always disappear to?

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Bright side, my Kindle was fully charged and loaded with unread books. I’m way behind on my reading for the year–like I need to read eight books in three weeks to catch up behind–so I figured there was no time like the present.

In my muscle relaxer haze, I started Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire.

I’m going to caution you REAL fast. DO NOT READ THIS PARTICULAR BOOK ON A MUSCLE RELAXER. IT WILL NOT BE PRETTY. WHAT DID I DO?

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Every Heart a Doorway is a quick read. Seriously. An hour and a half to two hours, if you’re not also enjoying a technicolor joyride of pure, medicated bliss. If you do happen to be falling asleep every few pages, then it may take you longer.

The premise of the book is interesting and captivating and totally not my style, except that it has been recommended highly by literally every one of my favorite book podcasts.

Every Heart a Doorway is about a boarding school for children who have through doorways into other worlds. They have all found their own Narnias, Wonderlands, and 100 Acre Woods in which to dwell. They have also all been unceremoniously forced back into our world.

This school, run by Eleanor West, functions as a support group and rehabilitation center for the victims of Doorway travel. They are taught how to reintegrate with our world and how to deal with the loss of their Doors. The students are offered a loving environment surrounded by people like them, in which to recover from the experiences and learn how to deal with the shock of being sent back.

For a short book, it’s really a complex concept that was beautifully executed.

The story focuses on Nancy, a girl who has recently returned from The Hall of The Dead. From the beginning, the reader gets the sense that Nancy is desperate to return. Nancy is forced to room with a girl named Sumi who seems to be Nancy’s complete opposite. Nancy is describe as statue-like in her stillness, while Sumi is always in motion.

Just as Nancy starts to settle into the school, Sumi is murdered and dark events are set into motion.

Review

I really enjoyed Every Heart a Doorway. It was fast paced and concise. There’s something nice about concision, especially when you need a quick read. McGuire is very conservative with the details in this book and with the character selection of this book. While we get the feeling that the school has a fairly large student body, only the students who are directly involved in the story are mentioned. There are no wasted words for peripheral characters.

I was captivated by this premise. There was something very clinical about McGuire’s presentation of it. It almost read like an allegory for something greater, for some conversation about mental health. There were layers to this very short novel that made me want more, and somehow feel completely satisfied with what it gave me. Maybe that’s the muscle relaxers talking. But still, I loved every minute of it.

Plucky’s Rating?

3.5 stars. It was a fast, but not light read. It was a well-spent afternoon. Nothing life changing. Nothing world altering. But good.

Review – Every Day by David Levithan

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My Facebook memories reminded me of this photo I uploaded five years ago. (How could this possibly have been five years ago?)

The best part of this memory is that it reminded me of the discovery of one of my favorite books I’ve ever read. This particular book opened my eyes to a world I hadn’t considered before. It’s one of the catalysts in helping me transform into the open-minded, open-hearted liberal that I am today. I don’t mean liberal in the political sense, but in the social sense. You see, friends, I was raised in the conservative South around gun-toting “Christian” republicans who, through no fault of their own, are often extremely narrow-minded.

I don’t fault them this. I don’t begrudge them this. I grew up in this conservative bubble and we were happy. We didn’t have hurtful political discourse. But moving and living in a new environment and opening myself up to the life experiences of others helped me to become the person I am today. And I kind of love the person I have become.

Every Day by David Levithan fell into my lap during this transitional time. I had always supported my gay friends. I had always supported gay marriage as an idea, but I didn’t quite get it as far as fighting for equality when. I supported it because it impacted my friends’ lives, not because it affected the fabric of our nation, of our society and world.

Not that gay marriage is the central focus of this book, but this book led me to evaluate my beliefs and thoughts more closely.

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About Every Day

Every Day is narrated by a character named AA is an intelligence, a non-definable existence that wakes up in a new body every day. Every day of its like, A has awoken as a new person. It’s an interesting concept. A is in control of the body it’s in and in that body’s consciousness, but A has access to that body’s memories. And for the most part, A tries not to disturb the body’s life as it currently exists. Until one morning when A wakes up in the body of a loser really awesome, misunderstood young man named Justin. A falls almost immediately in love with Justin’s girlfriend, Rhiannon. A learns that Justin and Rhiannon’s relationship isn’t exactly what it should be, so instead of passively existing in Justin’s life, A intervenes to give Rhiannon the most beautiful day imaginable.

And all is well.

Until the next day, when A wakes up and can’t stop thinking about Rhiannon. A begins to break all of its rules. A must see Rhiannon. The connection there is inexplicable, but it’s real. It’s tangible.

A begins working harder and harder to make it possible to see Rhiannon. Eventually, A reveals its lifelong secret/truth to Rhiannon. Naturally, she is skeptical, but is eventually persuaded. She wants to see A as well and works to make it possible, despite the obstacles and complications of it all.

Unfortunately, however, A‘s presence begin to cause disruptions in the wider realm. People are noticing A‘s existence and it may mean ruin for A.

Review

Every Day is a beautifully written novel. David Levithan is an editor–he’s Maggie Stiefvater’s editor, in fact–so he knows what a good book is. His treatment of characters is beautiful. He makes the real. He makes them vulnerable. He makes me love them. (Surely by now in my reviews, you have learned that I love a character-driven novel.) He keeps the plot moving forward. He keeps things interesting and fresh. Not to mention, the premise is so unique and exciting.

I couldn’t put Every Day down. I genuinely skipped a night of sleep for it. It was amazing. It was captivating. It was everything I wanted in a book.

As I said, Every Day is not a book that, at its core, is about homosexuality or gay marriage, or anything like that. What it is about, though, is love. It’s about loving a person despite their appearance, despite their physical characteristics. It helped me realize what Lin-Manuel Miranda best articulated: “love is love is love is love.”

It’s one of those rare books that, even after all this time, stands out in my memory bright and whole and beautiful and detailed. I’m still hung over from Every Day. Lucky for me, there was a prequel, Six Earlier Days, and a sequel Another Day. With a third full book in the series, Some Day to come out this year. However, Every Day stands on its own as an amazing book.

I cannot wait for the release of this movie. I’m so giddy over it, I may reread Every Day in preparation.

Plucky’s Rating?
4/5 Stars

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – The Dangerous Art of Blending In by Angelo Surmelis

Seventeen-year-old Evan Panos doesn’t know where he fits in. His strict Greek mother refuses to seem him as anything but a disappointment. His quiet, workaholic father is a staunch believer in avoiding any kind of conflict. And his best friend Henry has somehow become distactingly attractive over the summer.

Tired, isolated, scared–Evan’s only escape is drawing in an abandoned church that feels as longely as he is. And, yes, he kissed one guy over the summer. But it’s his best friend Henry who’s now proving to be irresistible. It’s Henry who suddenly seems interested in being more than friends. And it’s Henry who makes him believe that he’s more than his mother’s harsh words and terrifying abuse. But as things with Henry heat up, and his mother’s abuse escalates, Evan has to decide how to find his voice in a world where he has survived so long by avoiding attention at all costs.

I am crying from 38,000 feet in the air as I type this. The Dangerous Art of Blending In has given me every feel, even some I didn’t know I had. It was beautifully and eloquently written. It was heartbreaking and soul shattering and amazing. It was overwhelming and wonderful and I’m currently so hungover I can’t figure out how this world existed before The Dangerous Art of Blending In and how it will continue to exist now that I’ve finished it.

Big trigger warning ahead: This book deals with child abuse in a very real and a very raw way. If this is something that is triggering to you, proceed with caution.

Back story

Evan Panos is seventeen years old. He has spent the entire summer at bible camp where he met Gaige, a summer fling with whom he’s shared exactly one kiss. But as Evan returns home and tries to reintegrate into his normal routine, things get messy, quickly. First, there’s his asshole delightful pseudo friend, Jeremy, who aims to make everybody around him miserable while simultaneously maintaining his title of biggest douche I’ve ever read in my entire life. Then, there’s Henry, Evan’s beautiful best friend from whose smile the sun shines. Seriously, Henry is the most delightful love interest ever written. He’s complex. He’s got depth. He has his own story, even though he isn’t the focus of this book. In fact, Surmelis doesn’t waste characters; everybody has a story. Everybody is important. He has a very conservative approach to introducing characters in the story.

Evan’s biggest problem? His mother. She’s awful. She’s a real bitch troubled soul. A religious zealot with her own complex backstory, she is angry and abusive. She accused Evan of having evil within him. She attempts to pray it out, beat it out, guilt it out, and any other method of expelling the evil from him she can.

Evan’s not evil. Evan is gay. And his mother isn’t actually evil. She’s mentally ill. She needs help.

The person who was supposed to love me the hardest–the most unconditionally–has always wanted me gone. No matter how hard I tried to be perfect.

Evan’s father is almost absent. He makes excuses for Evan’s mother because of her painful past. He helps Evan in secret. It’s loathsome how uninvolved he is in saving his son. But that’s a several-miles-long rant I’m choosing to spare you from. You’re welcome.

Evan’s school life is rough. He spends everyday hiding scars and bruises and being the butt of a joke. People make fun of his clumsiness (his excuse for all of his bruises) and pick on him for his clothes and his appearance. All of which are defense mechanisms to help deal with the abuse he’s receiving. His life is complex and complicated and nobody except for Henry can see it. But Henry, with his 20/20 vision and his amazing floppy hair. He’s special. He’s amazing. I’m in love with Henry.

Maybe I’m not so ugly after all. Maybe no one is really ugly, and maybe no one has the right to call someone that or tell them that they are. Maybe the only real ugliness is what lives inside some people.

Review

Surmelis addresses society in interesting ways in this book. He addresses homosexuality in a real and important way. And he can do this as a writer in a way that I’ll never be able to because I’m not gay. I can support and advocate for gay rights all day long, but I don’t have firsthand knowledge. It’s good to read from people who do. It’s good to see the world through others’ eyes. Surmelis addresses homophobia by making you fall in love with the characters as people, showing you their inner workings and their feelings and their humanity. And then he shows you how ugly and awful people can be. How hate filled they are. My biggest problem with this book? It’s not fiction.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In is inspired by Surmelis’s own life experiences. He experienced this hatred firsthand and dealt with abuse and pain the way Evan has. What’s worse? Evan’s/Surmelis’s stories are not unique. They’re not rare. They’re what people are dealing with every single day. People that you and I interact with everyday are dealing with true, unadulterated hatred. They are being persecuted everyday by people who claim to be spreading love.

I am going to take a moment to stand on my soapbox, because this is my blog and I do what I want. I am a Christian and I love you whether you’re gay, straight, bi, trans, man, woman, child, black, white, Asian, middle eastern, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, tall, short, fat, skinny, or any other discriminating feature you may have. And anybody who claims to be a Christian and does not love you because of your walk in life is not following the call of Christ. We were called to love with our whole hearts. We are all sinners and we are not called condemn others to hell. /rant

Now, all that said. If you, dear reader, or anybody you know is suffering the way that Evan did, please reach out for help. Your teachers and principals want to help. Your school counselor. A preacher. Any friend. The police. There are help lines. And if you are suffering and you need help, please email me and I will personally find you someone to help. This is important to me. You are too beautiful to hurt. You are too beautiful to have to go through something like that. I hope you understand how important this is to me.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In is one of my favorite books I have ever read. It reminds me why I love reading. I get to experience different worlds, different lives, different existences every day. Books like this remind me what it is to be human and that we’re all here, hurting and fighting and surviving together. I love this book with the same ferocity I love Eleanor & Park, Carry On, and Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda which is the highest praise I can offer any book.

The Dangerous Art of Blending In goes on sale January 30, 2018. Reserve your copy today. I promise you will thank me later.

Plucky’s rating? 5/5 Starts

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – The Last Girl on Earth by Alexandra Blogier

Li has a father and a sister who love her. A best friend, Mirabae, to share things with. She goes to school and hangs out at the beach and carefully follows the rules. She has to. Everyone she knows–her family, her teachers, her friends–is an alien. And she is the only human left on Earth.

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Alright, I admit it. I judge books by their covers. I totally do. I’m going to guess most of you do, too. It’s okay, really. Here’s the things about book covers: they help us to mentally categorize books in our head. We all know a fantasy book from a mile away, even if that’s not a genre we’re familiar with, based solely on the cover. Almost 90% of the time. Sometimes publishers even use this to their advantage. When I was in college, right after Twilight became the sensation it was, some publisher recovered classic novels like Pride and Prejudice to looks just like Twilight. And it worked because we all judge books by their covers.

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The first thing that caught my attention about The Last Girl on Earth by Alexandra Blogier was, in fact, the cover. The colors caught my attention; the juxtaposition of space and sea. The lonely girl on the edge of the water. It seemed so solitary. I used the cover to draw my own inferences about the book. I imagined something post-apocalyptic, a girl on the fringes of society. I imagined solitude and a person vs. nature kind of conflict.

The I read the description (see above) and I found that some of my inferences were correct and some were not. I decided to request a galley for this book in an attempt to read more YA Science Fiction, a genre that I tend to avoid for whatever reason.

A little bit of back story:

Sixteen years before the opening of The Last Girl on Earth, Earth has been invaded by the Abdoloreans and have destroyed the Human Race. They’ve studied them for research purposes and have eradicated humans as we know them. Li, the protagonist, however, is the last remaining human being. The man who raised her, the man she calls father, rescued her as the race crumbled.

The Abdoloreans are roughly humanoid, which makes it slightly easier for Li to blend in. Unfortunately for Li, however, the Abdoloreans are superior in many ways. They’re stronger, faster, smarter than the human race. They also have gills, but Li’s father has found a way to work around that.

The Abdoloreans are a little bit like Israel in that every citizen is conscripted for military service when they come of age. The bulk of their education is focused on training them for service in their armed forces. And the bulk of Li’s life has been preparing to make officer in the forces in an attempt to hide her secret.

Into my review:

This book was short, for starters. It was like a two-and-a-half-hour read. Not that I’m opposed to short books, but they don’t leave a lot of room for exposition and world building. Short books force the author to be a master crafter, weaving back story into the storyline as the action is happening. Unfortunately, in the case of The Last Girl on Earth there were more questions than answers in the world building.

It seemed as though The Last Girl on Earth relied on a lot of tropes in science fiction. Earth’s invaded. One survivor. Hides in the open. Chink in the armor is shown very early. Badass girl is taken down by love for a guy. It’s all very basic and very contrived.

That’s not to say it was bad. This book wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t my favorite. The writing left a lot to be desired. The story was fast-paced, however, and kept my attention. I am a notorious book abandoner, and I didn’t abandon it. That’s proof positive that it was not a bad book. It just wasn’t my cup of tea.

The characters had body and depth. They weren’t very complex. They weren’t very colorful. But they existed. They were believable. They were perfectly adequate. The story was perfectly adequate.

Plucky’s Rating?

3/5 Stars

The Last Girl On Earth is available where books are sold January 23, 2018.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – The Museum of Us by Tara Wilson Redd

Secrets are con artists: they trick you into letting them out.

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This book was not what I was expecting when I first downloaded it. The blurb that accompanied it was vague and mysterious and something about that intrigued me.

Sadie loves her rocker boyfriend Henry and her running partner and best friend Lucie, but no one can measure up to her truest love and hero, the dazzling and passionate George. George, her secret.

When something goes wrong and Sadie is taken to the hospital calling out for George, her hidden life may be exposed. Now she must confront the truth of the past, and protect a world she is terrified to lose.

I don’t know why I was so drawn to this blurb, but it spoke to me and I wanted to read it immediately. And I’m so glad I did!

My favorite thing about The Museum of Us is the way it deals with mental health and mental illness. The entire book takes place over two weeks (another thing I really enjoyed was the compressed timeline) in the psych ward of a hospital. Redd’s treatment of the hospital and its nurses and doctors is delicate. She doesn’t make them into the enemy, not really. There are a few times that the institution is vilified, but the health care professionals are treated with respect. I find this to be extremely important, especially in today’s world where conversations about mental health are still shaky and have to be approached delicately.

The Museum of Us addresses mental health head on. Without saying too much (because I don’t want to give anything away), I love the way that Redd handles Sadie’s character and Sadie’s specific needs.

In fact, I love the way Redd handles all of her characters. She makes them individuals who are quirky and different and real. They’re raw and they have flaws. But in typical YA fashion, they’re much larger than life. They’re beautiful and broken and they rely on each other. Unrealistic characters can ruin a book for me faster than nearly anything else.

The many pop culture references made this book timely, but in a way that it won’t make this book seem aged in a few years. The references to Harry Potter make it feel modern, but Harry Potter will remain relevant for many years to come. Sadie also has an affinity for old movies and old music. Her love of Casablanca and other black-and-white films makes this novel charming and timeless.

Something that I loved about this book is its absolute quotability. I highlighted so many things in this galley that stuck out to me. The author has a way of saying very profound things in very simple language. Of course, I can’t share many of them with you without revealing the plot, and I won’t spoil the plot for you. It was too beautifully and expertly crafted for that.

The Museum of Us is shrouded in mystery and is completely unputdownable (yes, it’s a word.) It’s riveting. It’s captivating. And I stayed up well past my bedtime to read it. I hope that you love it just as much as I did.

Plucky’s rating?

4/5 Stars

I recommend it to anybody who’s open to conversations about mental health. But this book should come with a trigger warning: there is some minor discussion about cutting that I was not prepared for. If this is triggering to you, just know that it’s minor, but it was triggering for me.

I hope you read it and love it. The Museum of Us by Tara Wilson Redd will be available for purchase on June 26, 2018.

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

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I started my year off reading You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon. It was such a wonderful read and really something unlike I would regularly read.

A little bit about this book. It’s a short-story collection predominantly about army wives at Ft. Hood. The stories focus on families and the way they are changed and affected by their husbands’ involvement in the army. The stories are well-written and thoughtful and poignant.

I really, really enjoyed You Know When the Men Are Gone. I haven’t read many short story collections, so this was a nice change of pace from my usual reading. The stories are fast-paced and short enough to read on a lunch break. In fact, the book is short enough and good enough that it can be consumed in a couple of hours if you’re a moderately-fast reader. I’m a slow reader and have bad ADHD, so I don’t sit through books in one reading, almost ever.

You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turn up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the window about to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

The first story in this collection sets up the premise for the entire book. I love books that tell me everything I need to know immediately. I also love when a book doesn’t need a lot of exposition to set things up. Fallon is sparing with her prose and conservative with her language. She doesn’t waste words. And while I do love well-written, flowery, verbose writing, there is something beautiful about concision. Very Hemingway.

The nine stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone all borrow from the same pool of characters and reference each other. There is something charming and beautiful about this; it shows how people’s lives are all interconnected. There’s something beautifully charming about nine stories that connect and are so separate and independent.

You Know When the Men Are Gone is a delightful book. I highly recommend.

Plucky’s rating? 4.8 stars.

Happy reading!

Yours,
The Plucky Reader

Review – The Afterlife of Holly Chase

The first thing you should probably know is that Yvonne Worthington Chase was dead.

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Allow me to pose a hypothetical question. Totally for rhetoric’s sake. That’s it. Is it weird to stage book blog pictures in the middle of a busy, dimly lit coffee shop? Asking for a friend, of course.

Sorry. That is totally unrelated to this review. I just was trying to get the ball rolling. You know, try to start friendly conversation. Make things comfortable. Now that we’re all friends:

I have a yearly tradition. Every year at Christmas, I read through Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I know it doesn’t change. I know it’s the same story every time. Scrooge always learns his lesson. Tiny Tim always blesses us, every one. (And I tear up every time, like it’s the first time.) Y’all. I read this book for the first time in the 7th grade. I can remember Mrs. Hagens, my seventh grade English teacher guiding us through it. And I still read it every year. For 17 years now. I’ve read that book 17 times. Making it my most reread book.

But this year, I changed it up. I did something different (and the entire world gasped a collective gasp because that really is very out of character for me.) This year, instead, I read The Afterlife of Holly Chase by Cynthia Hand. And it has been a delightful read.

This post will contain no spoilers.

I could spend time trying to tell you about Holly Chase, the protagonist, but she describes herself pretty accurately.

So that was me. Holly Evangeline Chase. Sixteen–almost seventeen–years old, five foot seven, 115 pounds, brown eyes, blond hair, killer fashion sense, and a perfectly horrible human being.

So, here’s the gist. Holly Chase is visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of her deceased stepmother who warns her that she will be visited by three ghosts. The ghosts come and Holly blows them off as if they’re unimportant and figments of her imagination. Unlike Dickens’s Scrooge, Holly is not swayed by their warnings. Six days later, Holly Chase dies a tragic death. Following her accident, Holly Chase awakens in an office building in Manhattan where she finds out that she has been recruited by this secret organization Project Scrooge, and she must now function as the new Ghost of Christmas Past (GCP.)

This is all in the first chapter of the book (and a little bit chapter two.) This is all premise. Don’t worry. I haven’t ruined any of the surprise of this book.

Holly spends five years as GCP before the actual events of the books take place. She seems very bored with her afterlife. It seems being the GCP does not provide much variation in her life. And then Ethan Jonathan Winters III happens.

Of course Ethan Winters happens. A boy always happens. Katniss had boy troubles. Tris had boy troubles. Strong, independent women can’t seen to get away from boys happening. They just exist. They just get in the way.

So, Project Scrooge, as you may have guessed, is the top secret organization that identifies a new Scrooge each year to try to convince to stop being an awful person. The three ghosts perform their functions exactly as Dickens would have written, taking them through tours of Christmases past, present, and yet-to-come. And this year, the current year of the book, Project Scrooge has identified young, beautiful, not-to-be-bested Ethan Jonathan Winters III.

Okay, so to be fair, I misjudged Ethan Winters from the start. But I can’t go into too much detail, because that would ruin my whole “no spoilers” clause. And I don’t ruin “no spoilers” clauses. So what I will say is that I really enjoyed this book.

I loved the subtle–and sometimes not-so-subtle–references to Dickens. I love Dickens. I’m a sucker for Dickens. And I was a fan of the numerous references. The characters all have a Dickensian pseudonym. And Dickens quotes or paraphrases run rampant through the book.

A loving heart is the truest wisdom

This quote from David Copperfield has always been one of my favorite Dickens quotes. I love its use and meaning in the book. It made me smile when it appeared in the wild. (For clarification, the actual quote is “[A] loving heart was better and stronger than wisdom…” but who’s counting, right?)

I also discovered a new favorite Dickens quote thanks to Holly Chase. I don’t know when I’ll ever have an excuse to use it, but I fell in love with it as soon as I read it.

Vices are sometimes only virtues carried to excess

Before I allow this review to get too long, I’ll give my long and short of it.

The Afterlife of Holly Chase is a delightful read. It’s no Dickens (but really, what is these days?) but it was very well written. It reads well and it’s an easy read. That doesn’t mean it’s not complex. That doesn’t mean it’s not a story with layers. It just means it reads easily. Sometimes I equate books to food. Holly Chase was like a really good soup before a main course. Not too heavy, not sweet, and a good palette cleanse before something heavier.

Plucky’s rating?

4.5/5 stars. Would definitely read again. (And will recommend to anybody looking for an easy Christmas read.)

Yours,

The Plucky Reader