Book Review – George by Alex Gino

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Title: George
Author: Alex Gino
Publisher: Scholastic
Genre: Middle Grade, Contemporary, Own Voices, LGBTQIA+

Whew. Everything seems to be a tear-jerker to me right now. President Obama’s farewell address. Joe Biden being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. Lin Manuel-Miranda and Christopher Jackson performing “One Last Time” from Hamilton, at the White House.

This is Us. To be honest, every episode of This is Us makes me sweat water out of my eyes.

And George.

This sweet, beautiful, heartwarming story about a transgender girl’s struggle to come out to her family and friends. It strikes the perfect tone for a middle-grade story tackling a serious subject. Many transgender kids know who they are years in advance of puberty and adolescence, which is one of the many reasons why this is so important to have as a middle-grade book.

George is a delightful character, who exudes a quiet strength. From the start of the story, we see George thinking of herself through the use of feminine pronouns, which frankly, if it wasn’t done that way, would have been disappointing. She has always been sure of her identity, but lacked the self-confidence to be her true self in front of others.

Yes, this is a middle-grade novel, but I definitely think it has appeal to everyone, no matter your age. And the first time that we see George genuinely smile – unforced – it is a beautiful thing. I found Kelly to also be a delightful character. A true friend, who supports and accepts George as she is…the two have a very sweet friendship that shines throughout the story.

My daughter is currently a 3rd grader, and it was very interesting to compare how many things were gendered in George’s school compared to my daughter’s school. There are no restrictions at M’s school when kids try out for parts in a play or musical, unlike George’s experience with Charlotte’s Web. Last summer, our large school district passed a policy that will go a long way towards phasing out gender-based activities that “have no educational purpose”, such as having a girls’ and boys’ line to go to recess, a situation that George was confronted with every day. While M’s school does not use gender-based lining up, other schools in the district still did. Our school board has also asked teachers to stop using gender pronouns, to replace “boys” and “girls” with “scholars” or “students”. This last action was HUGE, and sadly, provoked a huge outcry from the religious right in our community. I am grateful that we live in a school district that is taking progressive steps towards supporting transgender students, and making the school environment a safe space for everyone.

However, there is still progress to be made at M’s school. For example, in her PE class yesterday, the class was divided by gender to play a game. George really helped M and I start to think about all of the situations in which gender distinctions arise, and how the majority of them can very easily be done in a gender-neutral way.

Living in North Carolina, our state has gotten its fair share of negative attention, deservedly, over the past year for the state legislature’s horrendous actions with passing HB2 (coined by the media as “the bathroom bill”), a topic I won’t go into too much detail here, but was a direct attack against the LGBT community, and most especially transgender individuals. When that legislation was first passed, I sent each of my legislature’s that voted for HB2 (and in one case, co-sponsored it), a copy of George.

I hope they read it.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

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ARC Book Review – The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson

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Title: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Author: Lindsey Lee Johnson
Publisher: Random House
Release Date: 10 January, 2017
Genre: Contemporary fiction

*This ARC was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.*

Book Blurb: 

A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

Is a wealthy, privileged high school the most dangerous place on earth? While that may be disputed, there is no denying that to many teenagers, the high school years are incredibly tough, and can certainly feel like the end of the world. This novel – written in short vignettes that offers a glimpse into multiple character’s POV – follows a group of teens from a traumatic event in 8th grade through high school graduation. The teen perspective is balanced out by the chapters from the POV of Ms. Molly Nicolls, a young, new teacher at the wealthy Marin County high school featured in the novel.

The setting is the definition of privilege on steroids. Wealthy suburban enclave, where teens have their own credit cards, BMWs, and little to no parent supervision. Lindsey Lee Johnson did an admirable job of using the setting as a starting place to explore the culture of wealthy, white privileged teens.

The format is where things go wrong. I really like the idea of the vignette chapters, but this book would definitely have fared better with a larger page count. Each chapter spends a brief amount of time focusing in on one of the characters. You hear that person’s inner thoughts and perspective for one chapter, and then they seem to disappear back into semi-anonymity. This could have worked extremely well if the reader had the chance to come back to that person’s POV a second or third time. What we’re left with, instead, is the feeling of incompletion and not knowing what lies beneath the surface. Take Abigail, for example, we see her chapter towards the beginning of the novel, yet the ramifications of what take place in “her story” carry throughout the rest of the book. But her voice is lost during the remaining 75% of the book. David Chu was another character that I really wish I could have heard more about. The same goes for Calista, who we hear from at the beginning and the end, and out of all the teens, was most deeply and sincerely affected by her role in the tragedy that takes place at the start of the story.

The characters in The Most Dangerous Place on Earth are all flawed, and Johnson does an excellent job at getting to the heart of the culture of affluency, and the impact it has on kids raised in such a setting, who are rarely denied anything by their parents.

I do, however, have one major problem with the story. Part of me feels that the initial set up: cyberbullying and the resulting teen suicide, was done for its shock factor. The first chapter was heartbreaking, but at no point in the rest of the story was the awfulness of the bullying behavior addressed in a meaningful way. In fact, the “trauma” for the kids who engaged in the cyberbullying was used as justification for their selfish and cruel behavior in high school. Not cool.

In regards to the audience, I have seen this book listed as both YA contemporary and adult contemporary. I think it falls more into the adult genre, despite the protagonist’s ages.

Would I recommend it? Yes. The Most Dangerous Place on Earth has flaws, just like the student’s within the pages, but it is a thought-provoking, quick read. I would also add a trigger warning for the way that it handles bullying.

Rating: 3.5/5 stars.

Book Review – LaRose by Louise Erdrich

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Book: LaRose
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Literary Fiction, Ojibwe, Contemporary, Own Voices

LaRose easily jumps to the top of the list of my favorite books of 2016. It is a beautiful novel of love and atonement. The story takes place in the same geographic region as Plague of Doves and Round House: the small, fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota, and the Ojibwe reservation next to it.

LaRose begins with heartbreak. While hunting a deer that Landreaux Iron has been tracking all season, he accidentally shoots his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty Ravich. This is not a spoiler, it happens on page two. To make amends, Landreaux and his wife Emmaline follow a tradition of their ancestors, and give their own young son LaRose to the Ravich family in atonement, as an “old form of justice”. Young LaRose steps up to the role, helping to heal the hearts of both families.

The roots of the story go back to the Ojibwe culture that Erdrich herself hails from, and is the story of families and tragedies that span generations.

“Bad luck rarely stops with one occurrence. All Indians know that. To stop it quickly takes great effort, which is why LaRose was sent.”

As we come to find out, the accidental shooting was not the first tragedy, and LaRose is descended from a long line of healers, back to the original LaRose. Tragedies follow the LaRose lineage, from the selling of the first LaRose in the 1800s to a trader, through boarding schools, sexual abuse, tuberculosis, and the desecration of remains. LaRose is a name that has been passed through five generations, and in each generation, the name is given to one who has a connection to the spirit world.

But this is not a story about grief and tragedy. It is a story of love and redemption, about the way people live,  and how they rebuild their lives back together. Louise Erdrich’s story acknowledges that, to many American Indians, the pain and pleasures of the past are not forgotten, but become the foundation on which the present is built. In the novel, this is portrayed through the very home of the Iron family.

“Landreaux and Emmaline’s house contained the original cabin from 1846, built in desperation as snow fell on their ancestors. It satisfied them both to know that if the layers of drywall and plaster were torn away from the walls, they would find the interior pole and mud walls. The entire first family-babies, mothers, uncles, children, aunts, grandparents-had passed around tuberculosis, diptheria, sorrow, endless tea, hilarious and sacred, dirty, magical stories. They had lived and died in what was now the living room, and there had always been a LaRose.”

Erdrich provides a rich backstory spanning generations, in which the reader gets a better idea of how the parallel stories form and influence the present.

One theme present in the story of the earlier generations of LaRose, is the difference between the Ojibwe values and the American culture under which the Ojibwe had to live. This is specifically highlighted in the boarding school experiences. One of the boarding schools mentioned in the novel, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, existed only a few miles away from where I grew up. As an adult, I was shocked to first become aware of its existence when visiting the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. At the time, I was astonished that the Carlisle School never made an appearance in the history books of my high school. A slightly older, wiser me now knows better. I now actively work to bring the stories and histories that are often unheard by white Americans to the forefront, at least with my own daughter.

“At the school, everything was taken from her. Losing her mother’s drum was like losing Mink all over again. At night, she asked the drum to fly back to her. But it never did. She soon learned how to fall asleep. Or let the part of myself they call hateful fall asleep, she thought. But it never did. Her whole being was Anishinaabe. She was Illusion. She was Mirage. Ombanitemagad. Or what they call her now – Indian. As in, Do not speak Indian, when she had been speaking her own language.”

LaRose is a powerful exploration of justice and reparation. A novel incredibly difficult to review but easy to love. I highly, highly recommend it, especially if you are a fan of Erdrich’s earlier work.

Rating: 5/5 stars

Book Review – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

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Title: Eleanor & Park
Author: Rainbow Rowell
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: YA Contemporary

Rainbow Rowell seems to be one of those YA authors that “everyone should read”. So, I figured it was about time I picked up one of her books and read it!

I picked up Eleanor & Park on a whim this month, as it was not in my planned November reading list, but I am so thankful I did. It was just what I needed right now. The characters are offbeat misfits; the story is both heartwarming and heart-achingly tender.

Eleanor and Park. Eleanor, Eleanor…I loved her, flaws and all, although the majority of her flaws were due to her horrendous family members, not her. I have seen Eleanor’s behavior before, in a friend or two, and Rainbow Rowell really nailed what it can be like living in an abusive home. My heart bled for her and her siblings so many times. It was devastating to read about her lack of basic necessities – like food and clothing – and the creative ways she learned to compensate. Particularly her self-created fashion style, born out of necessity, totally owning it. Eleanor was a teen in pure survival mode, building a wall of protection around herself and not letting anyone in through the gate…until Park comes along.

Park. PARK. I wish I had a Park back when I was in high school. What a sweet guy. He’s kind and sweet and just awesome. His family was wonderful, too.

The two of them together were so adorable. And I love how they slowly , awkwardly connected, over comic books! I think I do a happy dance every time characters bond over books.

Shakespeare. Rainbow Rowell incorporated Shakespeare into the story, and it really, truly worked! I love when Shakespeare references work. Rowell uses Romeo & Juliet to help frame the storyline – you find out in the very beginning that the story doesn’t necessarily have a “happily ever after” ending for the two young-and-in-love teens, and it is further amplified by the Shakespeare references early on.

The Ending. I won’t say what happened, but feel free to discuss in the comments, which I am making a SPOILER zone! Did you like the ending? I definitely liked the way it ended. For the most part.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

Book Review – Leave Me by Gayle Forman

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This review was a wee bit delayed, I was hoping to have it up earlier this week. My life is on overload at the moment, and it’s hard to catch my breath! We are undergoing a major bathroom renovation right now. It’s wonderful, and I hate to complain about having the ability to voluntarily spend money on beautifying our…ahem…potty room. But, it has also torn our home upside down! You see the Evil Queen above? I will freely admit there have been moments this week that I felt as if I was channeling the Evil Queen!

This introvert is not used to lovely, friendly contractors politely and cleanly traipsing in and out of my home All.Day.Long. I love them, I really do. Brian and Joe, the two workers here this week, are so nice and fun to chat with; and they are as minimally invasive as they can be while tearing down walls and re-situating HVAC venting and tearing up floors with a super-duper, incredibly loud drill of some type.

know you love sledge hammers and pulsing drills echoing through your brain all day, just as much as I do!

Today is also the first day of Early Voting here in North Carolina. Hip hip hooray, the end of election season is in sight! I only bring this up, because I volunteer as a poll watcher during elections, and this year I’m worried it will be…delightful. No, really, I mean that. Truly.

I enjoy being a poll watcher. I strongly believe in exercising our civic duty by voting, and I always like to share information with others, especially in a state which has yo-yo’d back and forth this past year with Early Voting locations, re-districting and gerrymandering, fluctuating days and times, and the whole debacle of whether or not you need an ID to vote (Supreme Court ruled – no ID needed!). So, people out there have questions, and I am happy to answer those questions, to make the process as easy as possible. I always meet such amazing, fascinating people while helping out at the polls. I just ask the crazies to stay away while I’m on duty. Pretty please?

All this is to say that currently, until November 8, my spare time is in very short supply. Therefore, my reviews may be a little shorter or more spread out than I would prefer!

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Book: Leave Me

Author: Gayle Forman

Genre: Contemporary fiction

First of all, the cover! The colors are so bright and cheerful…and not reflective of Maribeth’s mood at all. But it does make me think of the two Pittsburgh roommates, Sunita and Todd, probably my two favorite characters in the whole story.

Book blurb:

For every woman who has ever fantasized about driving past her exit on the highway instead of going home to make dinner, for every woman who has ever dreamed of boarding a train to a place where no one needs constant attention–meet Maribeth Klein. A harried working mother who’s so busy taking care of her husband and twins, she doesn’t even realize she’s had a heart attack.

Afterward, surprised to discover that her recuperation seems to be an imposition on those who rely on her, Maribeth does the unthinkable: She packs a bag and leaves. But, as is so often the case, once we get to where we’re going, we see our lives from a different perspective. Far from the demands of family and career and with the help of liberating new friendships, Maribeth is finally able to own up to secrets she has been keeping from those she loves and from herself.

With big-hearted characters who stumble and trip, grow and forgive, Leave Me is about facing our fears. Gayle Forman, a dazzling observer of human nature, has written an irresistible novel that confronts the ambivalence of modern motherhood head-on.

Maribeth and I have a few things in common. We both have had surgery while parenting young children (in my case, only one child). Earlier this year, I had laparoscopic surgery to diagnose and treat endometriosis. Let me tell you, endometriosis is not fun, and it is something that I have been dealing with since my teenage years,  but that is a subject for another day.

Like Maribeth, I had an unhelpful parent. In my situation, my mother was conveniently unable to come help in the days following my surgery. Maribeth’s mom: WOW! Surprising, yet completely relatable. I understood her pain and frustration completely. I know all too well how annoying it can be to have a family member come to “help”, when in reality you end up with more work, while they are “helping”. Totally get that.

Like Maribeth, I was also adopted in Pennsylvania – a closed adoption just like hers, so I know a fair bit about the adoption laws and how they have changed in PA in recent years. Ironically, I went to college in Pittsburgh, at the University of Pittsburgh. I know and love Pittsburgh dearly, even though I haven’t lived there in quite a few years.

Unlike Maribeth, I had an incredibly supportive husband who always helps out around the house and with raising M, and went above and beyond during my surgery and recovery period, despite a grueling and time-consuming job as a general surgeon. He is fully present in the day-to-day of raising a child, as things should be in this day and age, and I love him dearly for it.

So, I have a lot of connections to the main character. This should have been a book that I adored. I did not adore it, although I will place it in the “like” category. Mainly, Maribeth annoyed me, from pretty early on in the novel. Yes, Jason – and her mother – should absolutely have taken on some of the responsibility. However, in her husband’s defense, Maribeth never says what she is really thinking, not even once. Yes, the burden is unfair to her, but speak up and tell him! As M @ A Blog of One’s Own says in her review, it is frustrating and childish. I completely agree. The intention of her impulsive escape to Pittsburgh is to fully recover from heart surgery, which is understandable, but it also feels like this is in part an untalked about mid-life crisis.

I appreciate this novel tackling the subject of a mother packing up and spontaneously leaving her family for personal reasons, and not painting her as a villain for it. Maribeth absolutely views herself as the villain at one point, but the story does not:

Sure, she’s written letters. But those letters would never appear in her movie. They would not be submitted as evidence to her defense, proof of her love, flawed though it might be right now.

In Maribeth’s made-for-TV movie, she was the villain.

The difficulties that she experience are real, and often left unsaid in today’s society. I appreciated Gayle Forman’s approach, as Maribeth is neither picture-perfect, nor perfectly evil. She is imperfect and true to life. However, I expected more depth to the story, to the pressures of working moms, and mothers with health issues, and the unrealistic and unhealthy expectations that are more-often that not placed upon them.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

Standalone books to read when you have Series Burnout

My bookshelves are filled with standalone novels. In my family, it is a well-known fact that I easily get series burnout. When I start to juggle multiple series at the same time, or I’m trying to read through a new-to-me series and find myself reading the same author for weeks, I take a break and pick up something else.

If this happens to you, here is a list of a few standalone novels, from a variety of genres, that have helped me break a reading slump in the past!

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The Night Circus  – Erin Morgenstern (fantasy, historical fiction) –

It is ethereal, magical, other-worldly. The dreamlike imagery the author provokes is astounding; it is also the reason why so many people dislike it. If you need a plot-driven novel, this may not be for you. I loved every second of it, and found it to be a beautifully written, visual book. The descriptions of the circus, vividly drawn but only in the shades of black, white and red, stay with the reader long after finishing the book.

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The Fault in Our Stars – John Green (YA contemporary)

I shed so many tears reading this book. It didn’t help that I had just lost a close family friend to cancer two month’s previously. A beautifully written book about making peace with the unfairness of life. A lesson that rings true no matter what your age. It may also make a good starting point for older readers who typically only read adult literatures but want to explore YA.

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman (fiction, fantasy, horror)

Oh, to be inside Neil Gaiman’s brain and see how it ticks. The is the first book I read by Neil Gaiman that was not a graphic novel, and boy, did it give me the chills! This story brought me back to my childhood; it’s like all of those monsters under the bed came to life in terrifying and menacing way. But it’s not just horror, it’s much more nuanced than that, or I would not have liked it. There is truth and beauty, melancholy and sadness, and a hard look at the innocent ignorance of childhood.

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All The Missing Girls – Megan Miranda (mystery, thriller)

I just reviewed this one recently, which you can read here. I will never look at Ferris Wheel’s the same way again. All The Missing Girls is the perfect stand alone novel to read in the fall at a time when county and state fairs are happening all across America.

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr (historical fiction)

I don’t usually recommend novels set during WWII, because I don’t read them very often. I read this one for book club this year, and absolutely loved it. It is very character-driven, which is right up my alley, and the attention it has received is well-deserved. The author does an excellent job of heightening your senses along with young Marie-Laure after she loses her vision. And it tackles so many themes in a way that is not over the top: military culture and bullying, free will vs. predetermination, physical vs. spiritual blindness, moral relativism. It is a fascinating read.

What standalone novels would you recommend to readers who need a break from series works?