Book Review: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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Ted is a lonely writer in his early 40s, and his longtime companion is his dachshund named Lily.  The two spend much of their time together, playing board games, talking about which boys they think are cute (Ted likes Ryan Gosling; Lily likes Ryan Reynolds), and watching movies.  One day, Ted notices an octopus on the side of Lily’s head, and the two embark on an adventure to try to defeat the sinister eight-legged creature.

The octopus, of course, is really a tumor, and the book is really about love, loss, grief, and all the stuff in between.  Rowley’s debut novel is funny, smart, weird, and blisteringly sad at times (this reviewer ugly cried through much of it), but it’s also a celebration of the unique bond between human and canine, and it’s ultimately a very beautiful tribute to dogs everywhere.

Some readers are going to struggle with one of the novel’s central issues: the “octopus,” which Ted refuses to call by any other name, and the willingness of those around him to also refer to the tumor as an octopus.  There are moments where this becomes a little grating, but the novel’s venture into magical realism helps sell it. Even if it didn’t, the book’s strengths far outweigh this sometimes irritating affectation.

Far and away the book’s strongest moments are the ones in which Rowley creates a fully-realized character in that of Lily, a dog who loves her owner as much as he loves her. She’s a lazy little snuggler, a lover of ice cream and turkey (TOFURKEY!), and she’s stubborn, too, in the best ways that dogs can be.  She talks to Ted, and she sounds exactly as one would expect a dog to talk.

Rowley is a gifted writer, and this is a strong debut. He’s one to watch, and this excellent novel is one to stay up late reading (and crying). Recommended.

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowely. Simon & Schuster: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

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Amanda Hardy is new to Lambertville, Tennessee.  Determined to have a fresh start for her senior year, she wants to make friends and fit in.  But she’s harboring a secret and a past that threaten to disrupt her new life, and she’s determined to keep her secret safe so that she can remain safe.  But she doesn’t bank on meeting Grant Everett, and she doesn’t plan on falling in love with him.  Grant seems different, and the two have an undeniable connection. She wants to share everything with him, but she’s not sure she can share the one thing she wants most to tell him: she used to be Andrew Hardy.

Hailed as one of the best YA books of 2016, Meredith Russo’s debut novel about a trans girl trying to make a new life for herself after a brutal attack has earned its extensive praise. This novel offers trans teens and adults a story that is at once sweetly romantic while also very believable, grounded in enough realism without ever veering into the horrifically tragic. The novel offers enough friction in the plot to offer readers insight into the real dangers that Amanda faces as a girl without ever overwhelming the narrative.  There’s good writing here, although at times the dialogue feels a bit clunky, and the exploration of new friendships helps flesh out the narrative beyond the typical romance.

The plot moves quickly, the characters are engaging and interesting, and this is a necessary novel for all readers.  It’s one to stock your shelves with and push into the hands of teens.  There’s lots to discuss here as well, and it’s going to garner those discussions.  Highly recommended.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. Flatiron Books: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover

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Lily and Ryle are young and beautiful and totally driven by their respective careers. Lily has fulfilled a childhood dream of opening her own florist shop, and Ryle is on the fast-track to becoming a world-renowned neurosurgeon. Ryle doesn’t date; he’s not a relationship guy, and he makes that clear to Lily from the first time they meet.  But then he changes his tune, and the two begin a whirlwind romance that has Lily reeling.  When her first love–Atlas–resurfaces from her past, she starts to question everything about her seemingly perfect life and realizes that her relationship with Ryle might be more fragile than she realized.

Woof.

It’s hard to be critical of something that is clearly not only a labor of love for an author but also a deeply personal book–the author’s note at the end helps expand on this–but the fact of the matter is, there are more problems here than good things, which made for a frustrating and uneven reading experience.  Fans of Hoover’s other works might devour this one and forgive its faults, but as a first-time reader of Hoover, there were too many things I couldn’t get past.

One of the book’s major weaknesses are its characters, who feel underdeveloped and often don’t speak like actual human beings.  More than once, I stumbled over something a character said because it just didn’t feel authentic in any way.  But what’s also surprising is that for a book that is largely character-driven, there’s very little investment in creating characters with fully-realized personalities. It’s not just the secondary characters, either: it’s the main stars. Lily isn’t developed. Ryle never comes off as anything other than an arrogant garbage monster, and that’s before his darker secrets are even revealed.

There’s also a lot going on in the novel, and it often feels like a bit too much. It tries to tackle a variety of serious, complex issues, and while some of the ruminations on the cycle of abuse are fairly well done, much of it feels half-baked. Maybe more editing would have helped; it’s certainly long enough.

And yet? I couldn’t stop reading, even though I knew where much of the narrative was headed. I felt compelled to finish it, even as it filled me with frustration. It’s not the character’s actions that felt frustrating: it’s the fact that in a stronger writer’s hands, this could have been something truly great.

Best for fans of Hoover’s other works, but this is not nearly as good as it could have been.

It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover. Atria: 2016. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Pax by Sara Pennypacker

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Pax is a fox, rescued when he was a tiny kit after his family was killed.  Peter, his “boy,” rescued him. He’s lived in domesticity with Peter ever since, and the two are inseparable.  But war is coming, and Peter’s father has enlisted, which means Peter is being shipped off to live with his grandfather. Pax is left by the side of the road, hundreds of miles from where Peter ends up. Determined to make it back to each other, each one embarks on a journey of self-discovery.

Sara Pennypacker’s moving story about a boy and his fox is a heartbreaking page-turner of a novel.  Interspersed in the beautiful prose are black and white illustrations from Jon Klassen, and these help bring the story right off the page. Told in alternating chapters by both Peter and Pax, the story remains grounded in reality even though one of the book’s narrators is a fox.

Beautifully paced and artfully told, Pennypacker allows the reader insight into the horrors of war not through the eyes of Peter, but through those of Pax, who sees woodland creatures blown up by mines.  The underscoring of how far-reaching the terrors of war can be is done successfully, with subtlety and grace.  Because so few of the characters in the story are actually named, the book feels very much like a fable.

Every moment in this novel feels real, and authentic, and emotionally resonant. It’s a sad story that is also full of hope, and it is one that begs to be read by young readers as well as adults. Kids will want to talk about this one, so be ready for hard questions about life and death, war, and much more.

Highly, highly recommended.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker. Balzer + Bray: 2016. Library copy.

Book Review: Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt

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Jackson is 12 and his family has just taken in a new foster child.  Joseph is 14 and has already been to prison and fathered a child.  He wants nothing more than to find his daughter, named Jupiter, whom he has never met before.  As Joseph starts to visualize a future with Jackson’s loving family, his past catches up with him in the most cataclysmic–and tragic–way imaginable.

Schmidt’s writing takes a serious turn in this sparse, beautifully haunting novel that will have readers glued to the page until the book’s upsetting end.  Jackson’s no-nonsense narration helps keep the novel grounded, even when Joseph’s story threatens to veer into melodrama.  Although the novel begins as a redemption tale, Schmidt offers readers no pat, happy endings here.  The result is a gut-punch of a novel with just a tinge of hope for the future.

Like Schmidt’s other books, the characterization is wonderful in this one.  Both boys develop throughout the course of the novel, with Jackson’s ideas about his own morals developing as he gets to know Joseph.  Although Jackson seems like an old soul for a 12-year-old, the narration is sparse enough to seem authentic.  The result is a knockout of a novel, engrossing and emotionally resonant even as it’s unbearably sad.

Lovely, haunting, and one that readers will want to talk about as soon as they finish.  Give this one to savvy middle-grade readers and YA fanatics alike.  It’s got broad appeal for a wide range of readers and will spark great conversation.  Highly recommended.

Orbiting Jupiter by Gary D. Schmidt. Clarion Books: 2015. Library copy.

Book Review: The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds

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Matthew’s mom is dead and his dad is a total wreck.  Just when Matt thinks he can’t handle any more hard stuff in the world, he meets a girl who has dealt with a great deal more than Matt can even imagine–and she just might have some stuff to teach him.  As he navigates his own grief as well as his father’s, Matt starts falling for this girl and learning lessons about life, love, and growing up.

If there’s one thing Jason Reynolds does well, it’s bring a neighborhood to life on the page.  That’s on full display here in his latest offering for teens, and it makes for a rich, immersive read.  Matthew’s voice is authentic, making for a narration that is both compelling and at times searingly real.  A slow burner, like all of Reynolds’s novels, this is one that will stand out to teens who like their stories a bit gritty but wholly real.

Matthew works as a narrator largely because of Reynolds’s skill with his prose.  He also knows Matthew really well and allows his grief to simmer on the page.  As Matthew finds solace in attending funerals at the funeral home he starts working in, his healing process begins, and readers take that journey with him.  The result is a largely successful exploration of what it means to move on after a significant death.

The supporting cast of characters are fairly well fleshed-out, too.  They help bring the Brooklyn neighborhood to life, and provide valuable insight into Matthew and his world.  This is a character-driven novel about slice-of-life Brooklyn, and it is a gem of a novel.  Reynolds is an author to watch, and his storytelling only gets stronger with each offering.

Hopeful, uplifting, and emotionally resonant.  This is a title to keep on the shelves, for sure.  Recommended.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds. Atheneum Books for Young Readers: 2015. Library copy.

Book Review: Believarexic by J.J. Johnson

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Jennifer’s family doesn’t believe her when she tells them she needs treatment for her eating disorder. Reluctantly, they sign her into inpatient, and it isn’t long before she thinks she’s made a terrible mistake.  The locked doors, tough nurses, and harsh rules aren’t exactly what she imagined.  But in order to be discharged, Jennifer must adhere to the rules and work on getting better, which means confronting some uncomfortable truths about herself–and her family.

Based on Johnson’s own life, this autobiographical novel offers an interesting and fresh take on eating disorders and treatment.  Most remarkable is Johnson’s ability to write with clarity about the disorder without delving into the aspects that might trigger readers; a thing that is very common in memoirs about eating disorders.  Johnson also chooses to set her novel in the 80s, when she was a teen herself, and the details are spot-on and help to add dimension to the story.

The setting and the characters are vivid and authentic.  Jennifer’s struggles with her family in particular feels achingly real, and readers will identify with her inability to communicate effectively with them.  It’s clear Johnson did a lot of soul-searching in the writing of this novel, and the payoff is great.  It’s a hell of a story about healing and growing up, and readers will be glued to the page.

There are a few missteps here: the novel abruptly changes from verse to prose as Jennifer enters the second stage of her treatment, and the narration also switches from third to first-person.  These stylistic choices won’t trip up most readers, though.  There are also a few story lines or plot points that seemingly appear and disappear at random, making for an at-times choppy read.  Again, these are minor quibbles with an overall compelling book.

On the whole, this is a powerful story about growing up and getting well.  A bit of unevenness doesn’t overshadow the impact of the story or its characters.  Once again, J.J. Johnson demonstrates her adept skill at writing for young people.  Recommended.

Believarexic by J.J. Johnson. Peachtree Publishers: 2015. Library copy.