Sunday, May 13, 2018

Book Review: What I Leave Behind

Book Review: What I Leave Behind by Alison McGhee 

Goodreads Description: After his dad commits suicide, Will tries to overcome his own misery by secretly helping the people around him in this story made up of one hundred chapters of one hundred words each.

Sixteen-year-old Will spends most of his days the same way: Working at the Dollar Only store, trying to replicate his late father’s famous cornbread recipe, and walking the streets of Los Angeles. Will started walking after his father committed suicide, and three years later he hasn’t stopped. But there are some places Will can’t walk by: The blessings store with the chest of 100 Chinese blessings in the back, the bridge on Fourth Street where his father died, and his childhood friend Playa’s house.

When Will learns Playa was raped at a party—a party he was at, where he saw Playa, and where he believes he could have stopped the worst from happening if he hadn’t left early—it spurs Will to stop being complacent in his own sadness and do some good in the world. He begins to leave small gifts for everyone in his life, from Superman the homeless guy he passes on his way to work, to the Little Butterfly Dude he walks by on the way home, to Playa herself. And it is through those acts of kindness that Will is finally able to push past his own trauma and truly begin to live his life again. Oh, and discover the truth about that cornbread. 

My Review: I was given a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

"Let your feet find the way. You'll know it when they do. Then let the day drain out of you." 

16-year-old Will copes with his father's suicide the only way he can: by walking out the days and spending his nights trying to recreate his father's famous cornbread. It almost feels like enough, until his best friend, Playa, is raped at a party, and Will decides to stop being complacent with his sadness.  He starts by leaving anonymous gifts for those in his life, like Playa, and the Little Butterfly Dude, his boss Major Tom, or even the dog of insanity, kept tied up on a chain all day barking. When Will stops walking past everyone in his life and starts finding ways to bring them happiness, he discovers a way to reconcile his own trauma and finally move on. 

What an incredible read! As the Goodreads description says, this book is comprised off one hundred chapters, each only one hundred words long. It makes for a short read, but the book still manages an intense emotional experience that lingers long after the last page. Perfect for reluctant readers, What I Leave Behind gives us a tiny peep-hole (the one-hundred word format) with which to view Will's world. It ensures each word is significant and makes the details of Will's life seem more poignant, since we're only offered a handful of them. This book deals with a lot of trauma, from Will's father's suicide to his best friend being raped at a party he was at, and looks boldly into those feelings, yet doesn't exaggerate or dramatize them. Will doesn't have a big breakdown or blow-up scene-- not to say those emotions aren't real, but they are rarer than media would let us believe. Instead, the book looks at the quieter sides of grief and sadness, through observations and showing the effect the emotions have on day-to-day life. In that way, the book creeps under the radar and quietly leaves a bundle of complex emotional truths at your feet, without the fanfare of a huge climax or staggering stakes. 

From start to finish, the book is incredibly heartfelt. Will is a quiet, sensitive boy who feels powerless against the trauma in his life. His father's suicide was completely out of control-- even if he feels responsible for how their last interaction went-- and Playa's rape is something he can't control as well-- he can't be a vigilante and go after the rapists, and he doesn't know how to be the unconditionally supportive best friend. It leaves him in a pretty powerless situation, which I found to be incredibly true to life, especially for a lot of teenagers. Trauma, in whatever form it takes, is a beast that can't be solved quickly or cleanly, even in situations where you do have power to change things. So when we can't change anything, we have to figure out what to do to address the emotions left behind. Will does this by doing anonymous good deeds for those in his life, which gives him mastery over his situation as well as connects him to those most important to him. 

As for writing, the book is simple, straightforward, and well-constructed. The writing was all very purposeful-- has to be, because of the format-- and uses a lot of showing to bring the reader to the emotional points. Instead of showing strong emotions-- having a scene be dominated by the character's emotion-- the author carefully draws up an image that focuses on the reader's emotions about that scene. The author does this by carefully avoiding telling us the characters' feelings, and then by having the narrator be vague about how these scenes make him feel, purposely adding in phrases like, "You know?" to make the reader feel that, no matter their interpretation, the narrator feels the same. It's truly the greatest example of how showing can allow your reader to connect more with your book. As mentioned before, the book doesn't have much for a climax, or stakes, or a lot of tension. What we get instead are these powerful emotional highs and lows that connect with the reader and keeps them reading. If you're easily put off by a lack of tension, stakes, or plot devices, you may not connect with this book as easily. 

All in all, this book is perfect for reluctant readers, or younger readers coping with trauma. I also strongly recommend everyone picking up this book, because it is such a beautiful look at trauma, what to do when you feel powerless in the world, and how to do more than just move forward. 

TL;DR: 5/5 stars. The beautiful story of teen boy learning to move on from his trauma through random acts of kindness.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Book Review: The Falcon Flies Alone

Book Review: The Falcon Flies Alone by Gabrielle Mathieu 

Goodreads Description: As the sun rises on a quiet Swiss mountain village in 1957, runaway Peppa Mueller wakes up naked and stranded on the roof of her employer’s manor, with no idea how she got there. As she waits for help, she struggles to piece together fragmented memories of the previous night. Did she really witness the brutal massacre of a local family? Did she kill them? Her fear of sinister house guest Dr. Unruh fuels her panic—as do electrifying flashes of a furious falcon, trapped inside her.

Wanted for murder, Peppa flees the police, intent on finding out if there’s a scientific explanation or if she’s just going mad. Her godfather, world-renowned chemist Dr. Kaufmann, risks his career to help her. In the meantime, Peppa fights her attraction to the handsome priest from India who offers her shelter. With their help, she not only finds Dr. Unruh but places herself at his mercy. His experiments may be the reason Peppa now shares her body with a bloodthirsty bird of prey—but the revenge she plans could kill them both.

My Review: I was given a review copy by the author in exchange for an honest review. There will be some spoilers in this review, but there will be a warning before they come up.

After her father's death, Peppa Mueller takes a job as a caretaker to a wealthy family to wait out the weeks until her 20th birthday, when she can claim her inheritance and move on with the rest of her life. On her first night in a new town, Peppa witnesses a brutal massacre that lands her right in the center of a murder investigation. She doesn't know how to process the things she sees-- the family that suddenly starts killing each other, her new boss, Dr. Unruh, smiling down on the violence, her own hands reaching out to snap a man's neck, or her body transforming into a falcon and soaring high above it all--so Peppa runs from the police, at least until she can find a scientific explanation for what happened to her. She doesn't believe in spirits or the occult, and is willing to bet Dr. Unruh dosed their drinks that night with a psychoactive substance. If Peppa can prove it, she might be able to clear her name as a suspect. But to find the answers she needs, she'll have to find Dr. Unruh and earn his trust so she can get into his lab, and the doctor may not be so easy to fool.

"I'd taken his bait, and the trap was closing." 

The Falcon Flies Alone is an incredible story of fantasy versus science, filled with well-balanced characters that flesh out a historical setting from not so long ago. The book takes place in 1950s Switzerland and is filled with fabulous notes from the period, from the Elvis records, the fashion, to the political landscape. There was an intimate way of describing things, making it obvious that the author was very familiar with the time period. Characters throughout made comments that were anti-Semitic, racist, and sexist, but they were authentic to that time period, fit well into the world, and the main character did shoot down those comments appropriately. The differences between cultures were highlighted throughout the book, and it was interesting to see the distinctions made for what was appropriate for Swiss culture and what wasn't. The book is historical fantasy and does an excellent job of really bringing the history alive from start to finish.

As for the characters-- wow! They were all incredibly well-constructed and balanced, fitted with their own sets of flaws, motivations, secrets, and shames. I fell in love with Peppa and Tenzin, and even Dr. Unruh. As a villain, Dr. Unruh was positively evil-- rapist, murderer, sadist-- but also very articulate and charming. The way he rationalized his abuse to Peppa was downright frightening at times, and very convincing. Peppa was smart and strong the whole book through; every obstacle she solved creatively, which made for an interesting read. This made it easy to root for Peppa, as she wasn't just bumbling her way through the plot events. It also made Dr. Unruh even scarier, since no matter how clever Peppa was, he was still getting the best of her.

**SPOILERS, skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to be spoiled** The whole dynamic between the two is interesting, although I am concerned with the way their relationship developed and ultimately, how Dr. Unruh's death was presented. As I said, Unruh is a deeply sick man, but Peppa is drawn into his charismatic spell and develops a bit of lust towards him, even if she expresses a lot of disgust at herself for it. While she's under the influence, of a drug as well as magic, Peppa and Unruh have sex, which comes across as very date-rapey, especially as Unruh sticks something in her vagina while she's still unconscious. Despite all this, when Dr. Unruh is dying, Peppa is kind to him, even gives him a bit of a prayer with sacred sand as he dies. Honestly, the book did such an excellent job of building Unruh up to be a horrific man that to see him being redeemed in his death felt anti-climactic. I expected Peppa to take revenge against the man who had literally tortured and raped her, and instead the book tried to play him off as a tortured soul. It came off as an attempt to minimize the horrible things he'd done in the name of a redemption.  It was disappointing at best, offensive at worst.

The book has some really incredible writing. There were many times where I stopped and marveled at the word choice and the ease with which the author commands language. The book kicks off from the first page with humor and mystery as Peppa wakes up naked on the roof of her employer's, and has to piece together the events of the previous night. The tension mounts and builds at a very steady pace, and the book has well-defined stakes that gets the reader emotionally invested. Even during slower parts of the book, the author was able to uphold the tension to keep the reader eagerly turning pages. The only issue I had with the writing structure is the climax seemed to come too soon. **SPOILERS** Unruh's death was the climax of the book, yet there was still a lot of plot that needed to be resolved. However, those conflicts didn't top the weight of taking out Unruh, leaving the last 20% of the book to feel like a drawn own denouement. The pregnancy, which could have been a big enough conflict to top Unruh's death, had a very underwhelming resolution, which contributed to that feeling.

The book deals with a lot of YA themes-- firsts, coming of age-- but I would recommend the readership as upper YA, even adult. The book deals with a lot of adult themes, but it's the voice and the mature way it's viewed that makes me slot this as an adult book rather than YA. It is heavy at times on the science, which was fascinating, but I could see teen readers getting turned off by the long periods Peppa spends in the lab.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book, aside from some concerns. It made for such an enjoyable read with truly awesome characters that stole my heart. I'm definitely looking forward to the next books in the series.

TL;DR: 3/5 stars. A beautifully written period piece where fantasy and science collide.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Guest Post: Breaking Out of My Comfort Zone by Stacy McAnulty

My comfort zone—quite literally— is my office. I share the space with my three dogs. It’s close to my coffeemaker and a bathroom. The internet is speedy, and the phone has caller ID (allowing me to choose which calls to answer). And I alone control the thermostat. I spend most of my waking hours in this home office, feeling safe and secure except when I start reading political threads on Twitter.

But as an author, this safe and secure feeling is not something I want for my characters. That would be boring and also, not true to life for most young readers. In my debut middle-grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, 12-year-old Lucy is a homeschooled math savant, who is academically ready for college. She’s content with life in her apartment and chatting with “friends” on math internet forums. But Nana decides to send Lucy to middle school for the first time, and Lucy ends up lightyears away from her comfort zone.

The start of the story is an example of a kid being forced out of her comfort zone. This was Nana’s idea (and Nana’s fault!). This is often the case for kids. They don’t choose to move to a new town. They don’t have a choice to participate or not in gym class. I can clearly remember the unit I hated most in PE class—gymnastics. I’ve never been able to do a cartwheel, and I’m as flexible as a dining-room table.  Gymnastic in gym class was agony. I’d fake injuries and illness to avoid tumbling across the large orange mat. But you can’t avoid a month-long unit. Eventually, I was forced onto the balance beam and uneven bars. Was there anything gained by forcing 12-year-old me to humiliate myself in front of my peers? I certainly didn’t go on to the Junior Olympics. It was more about learning to handle the uncomfortableness and embarrassment—something that happens to everyone, maybe not in gym class, but sometime during one’s public education. The seeds of empathy had been planted.

My dad tells a more uplifting story. When he was a kid about 7 or 8 years old, his mom (my sweet grandmother) told him to go play ball at the park with the other boys in the neighborhood. When my dad cried and refused to go, she dragged him to the field and left him. When he tried to return home, she locked him out of the house. (This was in the 1950’s and totally normal parenting.) With no other options, he went and played baseball. And as he tells it, he loved it and played for the next 40 years. Gram wrenched him from his comfort zone with great success.

Knowing adults can push kids into new activities and situations—sometimes with positive results and sometimes not. Then there are times when kids choose to make that leap for themselves. In the book, Lucy does not like to draw attention to herself in class. When teachers are looking for volunteers, she hangs her head and hides behind her hair as if she could make herself invisible. But there comes a point where she does speak up.  She can no longer stay silent.

Kids aren’t actively thinking, “I’m going to step outside my comfort zone.” Sometimes the choices are split-second decisions. Do I confront this person? Do I raise my hand when I’m not sure about the answer? And sometimes, they’re longer and more agonizing decisions. Do I try out for the play even though speaking in front of an audience is terrifying? Do I ask the teacher for extra help, something I’ve never needed before? Do I go to this event where I won’t know anyone? Big or small, kids are handling these issues often. It’s important for young readers to see characters doing the same things with both positive and negative results. Plus, it would be boring if we all just hung out in my home office all day. Although I do have lots sugary snacks to share.

About Stacy: 

Stacy McAnulty is a children’s book author, who used to be a mechanical engineer, who’s also qualified to be a paleontologist (NOT REALLY), a correspondent for The Daily Show (why not), and a Green Bay Packer coach (totally!). She is the 2017 Ezra Jack Keats New Writer Honor Recipient for Excellent Ed, illustrated by Julia Sarcone-Roach. Her other picture books include Earth! My First 4.54 Billion Years, illustrated by David Litchfield; Max Explains Everything: Grocery Store Expert, illustrated by Deborah Hocking, Brave and Beautiful, both illustrated by Joanne Lew-Vriethoff; Mr. Fuzzbuster Knows He’s the Favorite, illustrated by Edward Hemingway; and 101 Reasons Why I’m Not Taking a Bath, illustrated by Joy Ang. She’s also authored the chapter book series Goldie Blox, based on the award-winning toys, and The Dino Files. Her debut middle grade novel, The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl, will publish in May 2018. When not writing, Stacy likes to listen to NPR, bake triple-chocolate cupcakes, and eat triple-chocolate cupcakes. Originally from upstate NY, she now lives in Kernersville, NC with her 3 kids, 3 dogs, and 1 husband.

About the Book:
Author: Stacy McAnulty
Pub. Date: May 1, 2018
Publisher: Random House
Formats: Hardcover, eBook
Pages: 304
Find it: AmazonB&NiBooksTBDGoodreads

Middle school is the one problem Lucy Callahan can't solve in this middle-grade novel perfect for fans of The Fourteenth Goldfish, Rain Reign, and Counting by 7s.

Lucy Callahan was struck by lightning. She doesn't remember it, but it changed her life forever. The zap gave her genius-level math skills, and ever since, Lucy has been homeschooled. Now, at 12 years old, she's technically ready for college. She just has to pass 1 more test--middle school!

Lucy's grandma insists: Go to middle school for 1 year. Make 1 friend. Join 1 activity. And read 1 book (that's not a math textbook!). Lucy's not sure what a girl who does calculus homework for fun can possibly learn in 7th grade. She has everything she needs at home, where nobody can make fun of her rigid routines or her superpowered brain. The equation of Lucy's life has already been solved. Unless there's been a miscalculation?

A celebration of friendship, Stacy McAnulty's smart and thoughtful middle-grade debut reminds us all to get out of our comfort zones and embrace what makes us different.

"An engaging story, full of heart and hope. Readers of all ages will root for Lucy, aka Lightning Girl. No miscalculations here!" --Kate Beasley, author of Gertie's Leap to Greatness
Giveaway Details:

3 winners will receive a finished copy of THE MISCALCULATIONS OF LIGHTNING GIRL, US Only.

Tour Schedule:
Week One:
April 23, 2018: Beagles and Books - Interview
April 24, 2018: Mrs. Knott's Book Nook - Review
April 25, 2018: A Dream Within A Dream - Excerpt
April 26, 2018: Here's to Happy Endings - Review
April 27, 2018: She Dreams in Fiction - Excerpt

Week Two:
April 30, 2018: 100 Pages A Day - Review
May 1, 2018: Wonder Struck - Review
May 2, 2018: Nerdophiles - Review
May 3, 2018: The Underground - Guest Post
May 4, 2018: Feed Your Fiction Addiction - Review