Past Tense by Star Spider

Past Tense

Past Tense Book Cover

Title: Past Tense
Author: Star Spider
Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQ+
Date of Publication: April 10, 2018
Publisher: HarperCollins


Julie Nolan is just another teenager who’s madly in love with her best friend, Lorelei.  She’s obsessed with her and spends a lot of time hunting down the perfect opportunity to come out and profess her undying love.  Once she does, she knows in her heart that Lorelei will reciprocate this love and they will live happily ever after.  But Julie’s home life is getting in the way with her grand plans. Her mother, who just gave birth to Julie’s younger brother, has started to act strangely.  Her mother has become meek and muted.  At night she takes Julie to the graveyard, where she asks Julie to bury her and give a eulogy.  She’s nothing like the vibrant, full-of-life person she once was.  She’s convinced that she doesn’t have a heartbeat, that she isn’t breathing, that she’s dead.

Past Tense

At first Julie’s singular obsession with her best friend was a tad tedious.  But do you remember when you were that age? A crush, or “being in love” would often demand all of your attention. Star Spider does a fabulous job of replicating the teenage experience, and manages to craft Julie into a three-dimensional character. Sure, she’s obsessed with her best friend, but she has other personality traits that she demonstrates and gets to develop over the course of the novel. She shows compassion for her teacher who she thinks is in love with her. She demonstrates maturity and a deep love and concern for her infant brother when her mother starts to act strange.

This brings me to the title. “Past Tense”. How clever! At the graveyard, Julie’s mother asks her to give a eulogy.  She corrects her when she starts – saying that it has to be in past tense. “Past Tense” aptly describes all the themes in this book.  Julie is evolving into a new person, and by the end, she’s nothing like the person she was in the beginning of the book.

As the novel progresses, Julie starts to develop more self-awareness. There’s an event that’s a turning point for Julie, but her evolution is gradual and beautifully conceived.  Julie becomes able to evaluate her relationship with her best friend.  She develops a friendship with a boy in her school, Henry. It’s refreshing to see that her new relationship isn’t insta-love, like what she had with Lorelei.  Julie has grown and evolved into a person who can see beyond looks and superficial charm, and she develops a true connection at a deeper level.  This self-realization is also demonstrated in her relationship with her mother.  While giving the eulogy for her mother, she says that her mother was “wonderful”. Julie ruminates over this term, the shallowness of it, and how she should be able to probe deeper. If nothing else, when Julie’s mother truly does die, Julie will be able to give a fabulous eulogy.

Julie’s relationship with her mother is fascinating.  From the beginning of the book, her mom is already suffering from some sort of mental illness, yet we know that Julie and her mother were very close before the events of this book begin.  Instead of just telling us that they were close, Star Spider demonstrates this with absolutely heart-wrenching little anecdotes at the beginning of each chapter.  They’re short, yet powerfully demonstrative of the relationship they once had.  In the past, her mother was dynamic and full of life and absolutely attentive to her daughter, which makes it even more painfully obvious that she’s suffering in the present.

I particularly loved the parallels between the two prominent plotlines in this story.  The storyline of her best friend and what’s going on with her mother intersects quite beautifully with a life lesson that we all should learn.  (Spoilers are between the glasses!)

 

Spoilers between the Glasses!

Julie learns that sometimes the best thing you can do is to ignore the wishes of the person you want to help.  Being brave sometimes requires a simple telling of the truth.  Sure, she’ll never run into a fire to save a life (like her mother did), but she can still have an incredible impact on the lives around her.

She tells her father about what her mother is going through, which helps her to get the medical treatment she needs. She tells another teacher about Lorelei’s highly-disgusting relationship with the teacher.  By the end of the novel Julie is glad with the decisions she’s made, and she has no guilt or regrets.

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This is a fast-paced, easy-to-read book recommended to young adults (and adults!) of all ages.  While it deals with some intense themes, the book itself isn’t too dark.  The end is uplifting, which makes all the feelings that you had while reading worthwhile.

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*I received a copy of this ARC from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review.*

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Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman

Unbury Carol
Unbury Carol Book Cover

Title: Unbury Carol
Author: Josh Malerman
Genre: Horror, Thriller, Western
Date of Publication: April 10, 2018
Publisher: Del Rey


Carol Evers is a well-liked woman who is married to a not-so-well-liked man in the Wild West town of Harrows. Carol suffers from a unique medical (or magical) condition. She occasionally falls into a deep coma–one from which she cannot be awakened—for days at a time. During this time her heart barely beats, she scarcely breathes, but she can hear everything that happens around her. Her only friend and confidant, John Bowie, passes away at the beginning of this book, inciting the events that follow. Her husband, Dwight, is the only person alive who is aware of her condition. And he wants her buried.

Unbury Carol

This book starts off with a fire, but it sizzles a little in the middle. There’s a lot of filler for a story that takes place over a few days. That said, the book is very atmospheric, and I appreciate Malerman’s attention to detail. He does a phenomenal job of painting the picture of Harrows, the surrounding towns, and the Trail, and he thoroughly describes the secondary and tertiary characters. However, I found the female characters to be either lacking or not featured enough in the story. Lafayette is feared and powerful, yet we don’t see her much. Carol herself is well-loved—but we never get to see her demonstrate her lovability. Even Farrah, the housekeeper, is painted as weak and ineffective. At one point Malerman briefly mentions a badass female outlaw, and I hoped beyond hope that she would show up, but alas, she did not. Still, Carol herself is strong, and it was interesting to watch her character evolve over the course of the novel.

To me, the conflict in the story was a little silly. Carol was well loved. Why wouldn’t she have told more people about her condition? She was hurt by someone she told her secret to twenty years ago, but that was her significant other. Surely she should have told the local doctor, or at least the town’s funeral director. Though I understand that the plot hinges on the fact that no one in town knows, this is still a plot hole that niggled at me while reading.

The following comment is a mild spoiler about the ending. The ending is satisfyingly clever, if a little anticlimactic. When everyone in the story is a little mad, I would have expected a lot more madness in the final pages.

Someone asked me if Unbury Carol is your typical Western, and I realized I had never read a book set in the Wild West before! I told her that this is a good gateway book to introduce you to the genre. It’s moody and dark and a little twisted, and if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief, this is definitely a good book to read in the heat of the summer.

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*I received a free ARC of this book from the publisher and chose to review it. This in no way affects my review*

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Sleight by Jennifer Sommersby

Sleight

Sleight Book Cover

Title: Sleight
Author: Jennifer Sommersby
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Date of Publication: April 3, 2018
Publisher: HarperCollins


What a book! Sleight captivated me from its first page, with a fairy tale-like prologue that introduces a unique mythology which, of course, proves to be essential to the plot of the story. Genevieve is a strong and relatable seventeen-year-old, and her witty repartee is refreshing. I wish all teenagers were this eloquent.

Sleight book cover
I absolutely adore the setting of this novel. I’m sure nearly everyone had a point in their childhood where they wanted to run away to join the circus. This book makes me wonder what I missed out on by staying home. The atmosphere is mysterious, with just a splash of magic, but it’s still our world. It feels foreign and ethereal. At the first mention of modern technology I was taken aback.

I particularly love how Sommersby handles the delicacy of animal rights issues. Not only are the animals in this circus well treated, but Sommersby takes this opportunity to show how a teenager can be a leader in activism. Genevieve starts her own charity called Loxodonta, where she demonstrates transparency about the circus’s treatment of their elephants, and she donates the money she earns through this venture to relevant charities.

Sleight does an excellent job of introducing tiny elements that prove to be critical plot points later in the book. There are some genuinely surprising twists, and they’re the best kind—the ones that you feel you should have seen coming, because the clues were all in place.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the mystical surrealness of books like The Night Circus with some modern-day teenage romance thrown in the mix.

I can’t wait for the next installment in this series, and this book hasn’t even come out yet!

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*I received a free copy of this ARC from the publisher*

Sleight

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Rebel with a Cupcake by Anna Mainwaring

Rebel with a Cupcake Book Cover

Title: Rebel with a Cupcake
Author: Anna Mainwaring
Genre: Young Adult
Date of Publication: April 3, 2018
Publisher: KCP Loft


Rebel with a Cupcake is a witty romantic comedy about Jesobel Jones, a teenager who’s overweight, but she’s actually comfortable in her own skin. This in itself is very refreshing. The moral of the story isn’t that girls—or women—should strive to have that perfect bikini-ready body. The point is that you should do what you love, and Jess is never happier than she is when she’s in the kitchen, whipping up a good meal—or a batch of cupcakes!–for her family.

Rebel with a cupcake small

But of course Jess isn’t going to have it easy. Everyone around her is telling her what she should and shouldn’t do—all with the “well-intentioned” purpose of helping her to look the way that they think she should look. Some of the things that are said or done are a little over the top (That teacher should be fired!), but it makes for an entertaining read. Unfortunately, poor, strong Jesobel caves into peer pressure and tries to lose weight – with an unrealistic deadline for her weightloss, which, of course, results in her developing some unhealthy eating habits.

At one point Jess says that she’s surprised she’s doing all this for a boy. It’s clear to the reader that it isn’t just for the boy. All the pressure to become thin – from her mother, her sister, her bully, and even her teacher at school—it all culminates in her breaking point.

There are a few aspects of the book that I would have liked Mainwaring to have explored more. Jesobel’s the daughter of a rock star, which should have influenced her personality and her outlook on life.

The next line includes a spoiler very predictable, but I’m still warning you. Read at your own peril! 

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When the cutest boy in school, who just so happens to be in a rock band, starts to show interest in her and is seemingly obsessed with her father, Jess isn’t at all suspicious. It turns out that he’s dating her so he can get close to her father and his connections, and get his big break. *Gasp!* She should have suspected something – especially with how insecure she’d been feeling about her appearance. Was this actually the first time someone used her to get closer to her father? If so, celebrity is a lot different in the UK from in America! Jesobel’s younger sister is being bullied by her own imaginary friend. I found this both hilarious and sad, and I wanted her to get more time in the spotlight.

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All in all, Mainwaring does an excellent job of dissecting issues that teenagers today deal with on a daily basis. Jess’s voice is unique and powerful, and I do think that this book will have a positive impact on a lot of young girls.

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*I received an ARC of this book from KCPLoft*

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The Little Book of Feminist Saints by Julia Pierpont

Feminist Saints
The Little Book of Feminist Saints Book Cover

Title: The Little Book of Feminist Saints
Author: Julia Pierpont
Genre: Nonfiction
Date of Publication: March 6, 2018
Publisher: Random House


The Little Book of Feminist Saints is quite the treasure and I’m thrilled that I had a chance to read it before it was published. Modelled after the format of the Catholic little books of saints, Pierpont chose an interesting format that works well for the content. While reading this book, I sometimes recognized the well-known male counterparts in the bios of women that I hadn’t even heard of. This is evidence enough of how much a book like this was needed. 

Feminist Saints

Rather than providing a dry biography of each saint, Pierpont chose to focus on something they did that was of significance. She tells anecdotes that I wouldn’t have otherwise come across. Some of the feminists are well-known icons, and others are women who should be recognized for what they did. I also greatly appreciated the diversity of the women. She includes women of colour, women with disabilities, women from around the world and throughout history, and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

The little nods to the inspiration for the format are adorable. Pierpont calls each feminist a “matron saint”, and their illustrations depict a halo around each and every woman’s head. The bite-size write-ups for each feminist makes this book much more approachable for those who might otherwise find a non-fiction book like this intimidating. You can’t argue that you don’t have time to read when each saint is merely a page. You can put this book on your nightstand and read about one feminist icon before bed every night. While I do wish that some of the lesser-known saints had a little more information about them, this book provides the perfect introduction to each person, so the reader can research whomever they’re interested in learning more about.

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*Thanks to Random House for a copy of this ARC for an honest review*

Feminist Saints

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I’m Judging you by Luvvie Ajayi

I'm Judging You

I'm judging You Book Cover

Title: I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual
Author: Luvvie Ajayi
Genre: Nonfiction
Date of Publication: September 13, 2016
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks


What a fabulous book! I haven’t been this captivated by an audiobook in a long time. Luvvie is equally hilarious and insightful as she talks about her thoughts on everything – from what makes a good friend to rape culture in America. I listened to the audiobook, which Luvvie read herself, and I must say that she brings a unique flavour to topics she discusses, and I’m glad that she didn’t have some monotonous narrator read her words.

Luvvie Ajayi’s book is aptly titled “I’m Judging You”. She demands that we all do better in a world where things are quickly going downhill. Although the book was published in 2016, there is a powerful postscript in which she addresses the fact that Donald Trump won the presidency. I don’t want to spoil exactly what she said about the “Fanta Fascist”, but it was forceful and moving, all the while still maintaining her side-splittingly hilarious tone.

Now that I’m done gushing, I give it…

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I'm Judging you

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Tess of the Road by Rachel Hartman

Tess of the Road

Tess of the Road Book Cover

Title: Tess of the Road
Author: Rachel Hartman
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Date of Publication: February 27, 2018
Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers


Rachel Hartman has a solid writing style and a good sense of character development, but sometimes that isn’t enough to make a good book. This novel is a second duology set in a world Hartman already fleshed out in the Seraphina duology. While this book is supposed to be stand-a-lone, I do feel like the author cut corners when shaping this world. About fifty pages into the story, I found myself saying “Wait, what’s a dragon?” I still don’t have a clear answer, although I’ve pieced together a solid idea from her descriptions and other books I’ve read that feature dragons as a humanoid species. But using my vast knowledge of other fantasy series to understand this book is cheating, right?

One thing that I do appreciate is the ideas behind the story. Tess is on the road to finding herself, and it doesn’t require her to fall in love or meet a boy to do so. That said, the road to finding herself was deadly slow, with very few exciting events to keep the book moving forward. At first, I dreaded the flashbacks because they slowed the story down further, but after a while I appreciated them, because I hoped they would explain why Tess is such an unlikable character. I have a pet peeve against the trope of a female character who has a hard life just casually thinking about killing herself. She does seem mildly depressed, and I wish that she would have more genuinely considered it, if only to discover there’s something in live worth living for.

I did find the discussion of language – Quootla and Goreddi – rather interesting, but sometimes this slowed down the plot further.  I didn’t mind as much in these cases, because I’m a nerd and language is fascinating. Even made up languages.

Discussion of themes with some spoilers!

Tess of the Road

 

Like I said before, I appreciated the themes of the story. Tess believes she was “born bad”. She talks of this when she does some horrible things in the book like when she kicks the beggar under the bridge, but it’s almost an excuse. I would have liked for Tess to have developed more self-awareness. Tess also comes to terms with her body and her sexuality, through conversations with various strong women she meet along the road. The nun, the “whore”, and everyone else has something valuable to contribute to Tess’s personal growth.
Tess of the Road
“I’m just walking the road, looking for reasons to keep walking.”

While I appreciate that sentiment, and the writing was nearly impeccable, I felt the same way about reading this book. I just kept reading, looking for reasons to keep reading.

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*I received an ARC of this book from Random House*

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Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor and Park

Eleanor & Park Book Cover

Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Genre: Young Adult
Date of Publication: February 26, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press


Oh, Eleanor & Park. I’m a little late to the party, but I’m glad I came! This book was fabulous. Two misfits, falling in love? This book was almost perfect. Almost. I had a couple of problems with the plot and character development.

Eleanor and Park

Rainbow Rowell employs a lot of her usual detail to make this story come off the page. Everything is described with vivacity that it made my skin tingle. However, my major problem with the story—if you can call it a problem—is the focus. Both Eleanor and Park are so focused on their own lives—and each other—that many of the side characters are nearly forgotten. Park’s so-called best friend is a caricature of a best friend. All he cares about it getting with the girl he has a crush on. He doesn’t complain about having trouble in school, his nagging parents, or his awkwardly-located zit. He’s so two-dimensional that I honestly can’t remember his name. I didn’t bother to look it up. It’s ironic to me that Park didn’t grow closer to his best friend after he developed his own singular obsession with Eleanor. Clearly he and his best friend have a lot in common, but sadly, that relationship doesn’t develop or evolve into anything beyond a surface-level friendship.

That said, Park’s family was well-developed.  I liked both of his parents. They were realistic and flawed. Ironically both Park’s mother and father, while not getting that much screen time, demonstrated more character development than the two title characters.

One of my favourite parts of the story is Eleanor’s home life, which is so deeply disturbing and sad and explains a lot about who Eleanor is. However, there are some somewhat unrealistic aspects to her personality that I would like to briefly address. Park sums it up nicely here:

“Girls who don’t want to be looked at don’t tie curtain tassels in their hair.”

Aptly said, Park. I understand that Eleanor was poor, and that she had to wear hand-me-downs that didn’t fit right and were designed for adult men. But as someone who wanted to get by unnoticed in high school, I wouldn’t have dreamed of using some of the weird accessories Eleanor wears. Please bear in mind that this book is set in the 80s, and her fellow peers commented on how weird her accessories were. They must have been pretty extreme.

Spoilers ahead!

Eleanor and Park

Secondly, Eleanor is selfish. There, I’ve said it. I feel like Rainbow Rowell added the siblings in during a later draft of the book and didn’t want to alter the plot to fit this addition. Spoilers for real this time!

Eleanor mentions her concern for her siblings multiple times, but she does nothing about it. In so many books about a teenager with neglectful parents, the older sibling has to step in to parent the children. This book doesn’t have nearly enough of this sibling love. All this would be easily forgiven—teenagers are selfish! It’s understandable!—except for the way that the book ends. Eleanor runs away when her step-dad loses his mind and turns violent (not for the first time, but in a more extreme and dangerous way). She doesn’t take any of her siblings with her. She doesn’t linger to make sure that he doesn’t hurt any of them. She doesn’t call the police. She just runs. She runs all the way to her uncle in another city. Even in the final pages of the book, while it becomes clear that her mom and her siblings aren’t living with the step-dad anymore, it isn’t clear what happened to them. Eleanor’s mother was flawed, but she was so clearly broken, which Eleanor definitely noticed, and remarked upon a few times . Shouldn’t Eleanor have worried about her siblings? Shouldn’t she have thought her mother might be unfit to take care of four children with no job and no income? No. The last pages of the book have her obsessing over Park. She won’t reach out to him, she won’t respond to his letters, because she thinks he needs a clean break. It looks to me like Eleanor had more in common with her father (who she often complained about as being selfish) than she’d thought.

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Alright, well, I’ve finished ranting. Clearly I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I’d thought. However, I’m still giving it…

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The French Girl by Lexie Elliott

The French Girl
The French Girl Book Cover

Title: The French Girl
Author: Lexie Elliott
Genre: Thriller
Date of Publication: February 20, 2018
Publisher: Berkley Books


The mademoiselle next door…

The French Girl is not just another book about a “girl”, a keyword that seems to be a prerequisite for the titles of psychological thrillers these days. This book is different from others in the genre, which tend to have unlikable main characters and plots that twist and turn and have random shocking revelations peppered throughout. This is character driven, and the strength of the story comes from the main character’s introspection.

The French Girl

The French Girl is about Kate, a woman–an English woman who is forced to relive events that happened ten years ago. Kate, along with five friends, went to vacation at a farmhouse in the countryside. They were visited by a mysterious French girl, the mademoiselle next door, who disappeared shortly afterwards. Ten years later, her body has been unearthed, and Kate–along with her five friends–are the only suspects.

The novel is remarkably slow paced, with a focus placed on the characters and their motivations. The events from ten years ago are gradually revealed as the relationships between the six friends are dissected and evaluated. Everyone has changed over the last ten years, and no one is who they once were. But could one of them be a killer?

Lexie Elliott’s debut novel is compelling in its simplicity. Kate is having difficulty in her professional and personal life, and then she learns that the French Girl from years ago is dead. She questions everything, from the innocence of her friends to her own sanity. She starts to see the French girl everywhere; the ghost haunts her every waking moment.

I broke a cardinal rule and peeked at some of the other reviews for this book. There is some criticism of the ending. I agree that the climax might lack some “oomph”, but I found the plot tied up quite satisfyingly. The climax was thrilling–if a little predictable–but the final pages had a uniquely languorous tone that I just lapped up. Lexie Elliott took her time to wrap up the loose ends. I also found the process of a criminal investigation, particularly the way it concluded, was fairly realistic. It was unlike what you see on TV, where the crime is solved in sixty minutes, or DNA test results come in within a few hours. I did think that the chief investigator employed unorthodox methods of finding evidence, which was one trope I wasn’t happy to see in this book. But given that he wasn’t the primary focus of the story, and that everything he did was viewed through Kate’s preoccupied eyes, it can be hard to criticize him or even believe everything that Kate says he did.

This brings me to my final point. Lexie Elliott does a fabulous job of crafting an unreliable narrator. Kate isn’t a drug addict or an alcoholic, and she is, for all intents and purposes, relatively normal. She’s perfectly relatable. Aside from the nasty habit of seeing the ghost of the French girl, she comes across as quite sane. The unreliability comes from her memories of that night–almost ten years ago–and what had happened. At the time, she observed her friends and the events that followed through the lens of a youthful innocence. She didn’t know her friends’ darkest secrets, which would have had her interpreting everything from that night a lot differently. Even now, she can’t trust her memory, because it’s faded over time.

Just imagine–if you were asked to recall the events of a night almost ten years ago, would you be able to remember exactly what happened? Or would you question everything now that you’ve had ten years of perspective and cynicism? The French Girl is a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a character analysis fraught with tension, and while it is slow paced, I devoured it in one sitting.

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*Thank you Berkley Books for a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.*

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