Sloppy Firsts: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCaffertyDon’t let the last name fool you, Jessica Darling is anything but darling. Not that she cares. With her best friend Hope all the way across the country, it’s not like Jessica has anyone nearby who understands her or makes her want to try harder.

She tolerates the Clueless Crew at school, tries to ignore her dad’s constant nagging about her running technique, and does her best to stay out of the line of fire as her mother helps plan her older sister’s wedding.

In other words: Jessica is prepared for a hopeless year–especially with her insomnia spiraling out of control, constant anxiety, and the rather confusing matter of why she hasn’t had her period in months.

Add to that the mysterious and elusive Marcus Flutie who, for reasons that remain a mystery to Jessica, keeps turning up at the oddest times and Jessica’s year might still be hopeless, but it certainly won’t be boring in Sloppy Firsts (2001) by Megan McCafferty.

Find it on Bookshop.

Sloppy Firsts is the start of McCafferty’s Jessica Darling book series (which as of this writing was recently optioned for a TV series). This epistolary novel left a lasting mark in YA literature and is an obvious influence for many of the books that followed in this style.

That said, this book is from 2001 and it shows–especially when reading it for the first time in 2019. The book is very white and very dated. The story is written as letters Jessica sends to her best friend Hope because of the cost of long distance calls and their lack of cell phones or much computer access. A lot of what Jessica says (for instance discussing her “gimphood” at one point when she breaks her leg) would not get a pass were the book to come out now. Does that make it a bad story? No. Does it mean I would be very deliberate in how I recommend this book and to whom? Yes.

Despite being a scathing narrator, Jessica is often very relatable. She struggles with anxiety and peer pressure and other common travails of high school–many of which are things that were barely being articulated in YA books when Sloppy Firsts was originally published.

While Sloppy Firsts is a slice-of-life story, fans of the series will tell you that the book’s main focus is Jessica’s complicated and meandering relationship with Marcus Flutie who manages to be both incredibly entertaining and a complete nightmare throughout the novel. The chemistry and tension between Jessica and Marcus is immediately obvious and largely unresolved by the end of this installment.

Sloppy Firsts taps into a very specific type of character in a very specific moment. Recommended for readers who like their contemporary novels with a ton of snark, a bit of absurdity, and a whole lot of secondhand embarrassment.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen; The Truth Commission by Susan Juby; The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart; The Field Guide to the North American Teenager by Ben Philippe; Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison

Lirael: A Review

Lirael by Garth NixLirael has been raised as a daughter of the Clayr–part of the extended family who live within the Clayr’s glacier seeking to understand their visions of the future. But Lirael has never fit in among the Clayr despite years of trying. She does not look like any of her Clayr family. She has no knowledge of her father. She was abandoned by her mother.

Worse, and far more shameful to her, Lirael does not have the Sight which allows all of the Clayr to see into possible futures. Instead, a full two years after she should have developed the Sight, Lirael is left feeling the outsider.

With little else to occupy her in the Clayr’s glacier, Lirael begins to experiment with Charter Magic while working as Second Assistant Librarian. In honing her natural affinity with the Charter, Lirael summons a strange companion and also sets herself on a path to oppose an ancient evil and choose her own future in Lirael (2001) by Garth Nix.

Lirael is the second book in Nix’s Old Kingdom series. It takes place roughly 18 years after the events in Sabriel. (Readers unfamiliar with Sabriel should still be able to jump into the series with the help of background passages for key information.) On the other hand, readers familiar with Sabriel will recognize familiar characters as well as relatives of characters featured in Sabriel.

Although Lirael is a very different heroine from Sabriel, this story treads similar territory as Lirael tries find her own identity and make a place for herself in the Old Kingdom. Lirael is savvy and smart. Although she makes mistakes including some rash decisions, Lirael learns throughout the story and her growth is obvious as she comes into her own.

Lirael is another beautifully evocative fantasy from Nix. The blend of high fantasy elements with action and adventure continues in this second installment as Lirael learns more about her past and meets some unlikely friends and allies along the way. Page-turning twists and shocking reveals will leave readers eager for the next installment.

Possible Pairings: The Wrath and the Dawn by Renee Ahdieh, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, Brightly Woven by Alexandra Bracken, The Demon’s Lexicon by Sarah Rees Brennan, Fire by Kristin Cashore, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, The Lost Sun by Tessa Gratton, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Magisterium by Jeff Hirsch, The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg, A Thousand Nights by E. K. Johnston, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, Dreamhunter by Elizabeth Knox, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld, Illusions of Fate by Kiersten White

Black Potatoes: A Non-Fiction Book Review

Black Potatoes by Susan Cambell BartolettiIn 1845 Ireland relied most heavily on one crop. Farmers cultivated grains, green vegetables and a variety of root vegetables. But those were often crops owed to wealthy British landlords for rent money if not owned outright. Those landlords would ship the harvested food to England at a tidy profit. Among all of this export, potatoes were truly an Irish tuber.

It was potatoes that saw poor laborers through the long winter months after everything else was sold. Boiled, roasted, mashed with garlic and butter. Potatoes formed every meal for families across Ireland. There are few other vegetables as easy to grow that are as filling and nutritious as a potato. The only real problem was that potatoes could not last from season to season. By May the potato stores were gone and the Hungry Months began; poor farmers and their families had to look for food elsewhere sometimes scavenging, sometimes begging.

It was not an ideal way of life, but it worked. Until 1845 when a strange blight struck the potatoes near harvest. Once dug up, the potatoes turned black for no apparent reason. Were the little people aiming to take the potatoes for themselves? Were the farmers being punished for wasting the glut of potatoes from the year before?

In 1845 no one knew what devilry was work. The only certainty for most farmers was that the Hungry Months were going to last much longer than usual, but even then no one knew the Hungry Months would last five years. No one knew the Great Irish Famine would kill one million people from starvation and disease while driving another two million to emigrate.

Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 (2001) by Susan Campbell Bartoletti (find it on Bookshop) was the 2002 winner of the Sibert Medal as, according the ALA, “the most distinguished informational book published in English during the preceding year” (think Newbery awards but only open to non-fiction books). Happily, in this case distinguished does not mean stodgy or dense.

Bartoletti’s writing is straightforward and absorbing while conveying a wealth of information. Black Potatoes touches upon the obvious: the importance of the potato to Ireland, what caused the potatoes to turn black (a disgusting fungus that flourished in an unusually rainy planting season), and what happened when the potatoes failed. While looking at these broad historical strokes, Bartoletti  introduces readers to Irish history and politics  (circa 1845) with England and the United Kingdom while also describing the motivations that led so many to leave Ireland (and the conditions they faced on the long journey and at their final destinations).

A variety of primary source research lends an informal tone Black Potatoes and provides personal accounts of a variety of Irish men and women who experienced the famine first hand. Bartoletti brings a bleak period of history to life with aplomb and just the right amount of humor and compassion. Illustrations from period newspapers like the one seen on the cover lend even more authenticity to an already rich text. An eye opener for anyone unfamiliar with the period and a must read for history buffs.

Possible Pairings: From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, New York: A Short History by George J. Lankevich
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Sound good? Find it on Amazon: Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850

On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God: A CLW review

on_the_bright_side_of_things_im_now_the_girlfriend_of_a_sex_godI’m basically sure I do like Louise Rennison’s books, but wow her titles are long! I couldn’t bring myself to add “a Chick Lit Wednesday review” at the end. Wow.

Okay, so On the Bright Side, I’m Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God (2001) (find it on Bookshop) picks up almost exactly where Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging left off (two days later to be specific). As Georgia continues her diary, she is very disillusioned by the prospect of going to visit her father in New Zealand on “the other (useless) side of the universe” instead of having time to spend (snogging) with Robbie–the Sex God.

Like the first book in this series, this one basically just follows a few months in Georgia’s life. Mayhem continues to follow Georgia as she and her friends devise new Beret-wearing methods at school among other kinds of mischief. This includes some chaos on the hockey field (the first book featured a rather disastrous tennis match). Rennison writes Georgia as a bit of a spaz–always thinking about herself and her appearance, heaping scorn upon Robbie’s more studious ex–so it’s nice to see her being athletic without really trying and without any ulterior motive.

Meanwhile, Georgia also has to figure out how to get back in Robbie’s good graces when he once again decides that she is too young for him. Part of her plan? Maturiosity and Glaceriosity. Yes.

Basically anything funny that came up in the first book has been revisited in this one. A personal favorite: Georgia’s continued bewilderment when faced with the phrase “see you later.” (Does it mean “see you later” or something else? No one knows.) There are a lot of developments in this volume in terms of inter-character relations (Georgia, her friends, Robbie, and so on). But there isn’t as much intra-character development. Again. By the end of the book, Georgia does have some new quandaries to think about (is it a problem that the SG doesn’t make her laugh for instance), but it’s still too early to tell if her new introspection will lead to a bit of enlightenment.

By the time I read this book (in a day), I was basically over my qualms about liking Georgia but feeling like I shouldn’t. The plots are simple and fun, Georgia makes me laugh. It’s fine.

That said, I have noticed that, like a few other laugh-out-loud funny books for teens, this one gets a lot of the humor from Georgia having kind of low self-esteem. A running theme in both books is Georgia bemoaning her ugliness as a result of her large nose. It doesn’t really impact the story, or send any message about beauty ideals or anything, I just wish Georgia could be a little more sure of herself. All of her friends (and snogging partners) seem to indicate that people think Georgia is pretty cool. I wish that she would figure that out as well. Maybe in the next book . . .

Possible Pairings: Boys Don’t Knit by T. S. Easton, Ghost Huntress by Marley Gibson, The Popularity Papers by Amy Ignatow, Alice, I Think by Susany Juby, Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Sloppy Firsts by Megan McCafferty, Sucks to be Me by Kimberly Pauley, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, My Big Nose and Other (Natural) Disasters by Sydney Salter

A Step from Heaven: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

A Step from Heaven by An NaA Step from Heaven is An Na‘s first novel. Published in 2001, the book has received a lot of praise in reviews as well as winning the 2002 Printz Award (for excellence in young adult literature). The reason I like this book (and have added it to my CLW line up) is that the story shows the character’s evolution as she works to become a stronger, more empowered individual.

Young Ju lives in Korea in a lovely house near the sea with her parents and her grandmother. Everything changes for Young Ju when Uhmma and Apa start talking about Mi Gook. Apa stops hurting Uhmma and scaring Young Ju and his mother. Mi Gook is a magic word for the Park family. Until Young Ju realizes that Mi Gook doesn’t mean heaven like she thought–instead it means moving far away to a strange place called America where nothing is as magical (or easy) as the family had thought it would be.

The novel starts when Young Ju is four, before she knows the word “Mi Gook” and is being introduced to the water and waves. The story ends when Young Ju is about to start college. In between, Na weaves together a series of vignettes to show what life is like for the Parks in America. The story is about the immigrant experience, but even more than that it’s about family–very specifically: it’s about this family, the Parks.

Stylistically, this novel is a dynamo. Na incorporates Korean words and phrases into the novel from the get go. With a couple of exceptions, she doesn’t translate within the text. This does two things: on one hand it makes the novel feel more real in that the narrative (the story is narrated by Young Ju who becomes a more reliable narrator as she gets older) is not interrupted by translations meant to benefit the reader. On the other hand, it gets a little confusing because no translations also means no context for the words. That led to a bit of a stumble when I first started the novel and couldn’t decided if Uhmma meant “grandmother” or “mother” (it means “mother” by the way, “Apa” is father and Halmoni means “grandmother). Eventually I had to look up the words online and reread the first couple of pages–but after that it was smooth sailing.

More impressive, and equally effective, is the way that Na subtly alters her prose as Young Ju ages and becomes more familiar with English. The novel is written in the first person, present tense. The beginning of the story told in short, poetic fragments. Even the beginning chapter/vignettes are shorter than those at the end. The sentences get longer (arguably more complex) through the course of the novel.

Na also maintains both Korean and English throughout the novel. Korean appears in phrases throughout and as dialogue without quotations marks. (English dialogue is presented conventionally which makes it easy to note when the characters switch back and forth.)

As the Park family tries to cope with the hardships of American life it becomes clear that their family might not be strong enough to take all of the pressure. By the end of the novel though, after both Young Ju and Uhmma face some dramatic changes, readers leave with the sense that–after so long–the Parks are finally on their way to that elusive American dream.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu, Drown by Junot Diaz, North of Beautiful by Justina Chen Headley, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Butterfly Yellow by Thanhha Lai

The Toughest Indian in the World: A review

The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman AlexieThe Toughest Indian in the World (2001) is one of Sherman Alexie’s collections of short stories.

Find it on Bookshop.

It comes before his most recent collection (Ten Little Indians) but after The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (which features many of the characters who would later appear in Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues). It is also the first one I read. Unfortunately, I feel like it may not have been the best first choice.

Alexie is a wonderful writer, of whom I am a huge fan. His writings usually revolve around the lives of various Indian (“bow and arrow not dot on the head”) characters and their complicated feelings about the reservation they love while being desperate to get away from it. This collection of stories follows a similar theme.

The thing about short stories is they’re short. Writers only have a limited amount of time to explain everything and to develop characters. I don’t know how other readers feel, but I’m of a mind that I like Alexie better as a novelist because there is more time to get to know his unique characters and understand his (at times) complex plots. I found The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven to be more engaging because different stories clearly refer to the same characters–making them more dimensional.

Back to this collection:

As is true with any talented writer, Alexie does have some gems here. “Saint Junior,” “One Good Man,” and “South by Southwest” are especial favorites of this reviewer possibly because these stories most resemble the combination of acerbic humor and gravity common to Alexie’s novels. To take “Saint Junior” as an example: Alexie examines the relationship between a married couple who met at “Saint Junior” university and continue to choose each other every day. In the story, the husband goes to take his SAT’s wearing a traditional dance costume while, later in the story, his wife preserves the tribal tradition of making Salmon mush.

These stories are not passive. If anything, they are visceral. This collection combines elements of magical realism with painfully real moments of sadness and hardship in the lives of Alexie’s modern Indian characters.

The main problem I saw with this collection is that it remained distractingly distant. Most protagonists go unnamed, sometimes barely described, which makes it difficult to connect with either the characters or their stories. Worse, the stories alternate between nearly absorbing to disturbingly jarring. “The Sin Eaters” hauntingly presents an apocalyptic world where Indians are put through their own kind of Holocaust. This story is angry and, no doubt, important. But by the end it is too angry and too horrific, so that it became a chore to read the remainder of the book for fear of what other catastrophes it might describe.

Any fan of Sherman Alexie’s writing will want to read through The Toughest Indian in the World to get a better sense of Alexie’s work on the whole. That said, readers unfamiliar with Alexie would be better off beginning with one of his novels or perhaps a different story collection.