The Careful Undressing of Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“I’ve been waiting for one thing, but love can be anything.”

“When there’s nothing left to salvage, we have to save ourselves.”

The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann HayduEveryone knows that Devonairre Street in Brooklyn is cursed. Being loved by a Devonairre Street girl ends in tragedy. Just look at the number of war widows on the street or the concentration of Affected families left without husbands and fathers after the Times Square Bombing in 2001.

Lorna Ryder and her mother have never put much stock in the curse even though they pretend to play along. Lorna celebrates a shared birthday along with Cruz, his sister Isla, Charlotte, and Delilah. She keeps her hair long and wears a key around her neck. She does everything she is supposed to just the way Angelika has advised since Lorna was a child.

But none of it seems to be enough when Delilah’s boyfriend Jack is killed in the wake of the grief and confusion surrounding another terrorist attack across the country. Lorna and her friends are shocked by Jack’s sudden death. Grieving and shaken, Lorna has to decide what this new loss means about the veracity of the curse and her own future as a part of Devonairre Street and away from it in The Careful Undressing of Love (2017) by Corey Ann Haydu.

The Careful Undressing of Love is Haydu’s latest standalone YA novel. Lorna narrates this novel with a breezy nonchalance that soon turns to fear and doubt as everything she previously believed about love and the curse on Devonairre Street is thrown into question. The style and tone work well with Haydu’s world building to create an alternate history that is simultaneously timeless and strikingly immediate.

Haydu’s characters are realistically inclusive and diverse. An argument could be made that it’s problematic that Delilah and Isla (the Devonairre Street girls who are not white) are the ones who suffer more over the course of this novel filled with loss and snap judgements by an insensitive public. But the same argument could be made that privilege makes this outcome sadly inevitable–a contradiction that Lorna notes herself when she begins to unpack her own privileges of being white contrasted with the burdens she has under the weight of the supposed curse and living as one of the Affected.

This story is complicated and filled with philosophical questions about grief and fear as well as love and feminism. While there is room for a bit more closure, the fate of Devonairre Street and its residents ultimately becomes irrelevant compared with Lorna’s need to break away to protect herself and her own future.

A quiet, wrenching story about the bonds of love and friendship and the ways in which they can break; a commentary on the stresses and pressures of being a girl in the modern world; and a story about self-preservation first. The Careful Undressing of Love is smart and strange, frank and raw, and devastating. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Accident Season by Moïra Fowley-Doyle, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, Bone Gap by Laura Ruby, Saint Death by Marcus Sedgwick, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

You can also read my interview with the author about this book!

Teach Me to Forget: A Review

Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. ChapmanEllery is going to kill herself. She has chosen the day and purchased the gun. She even booked a cleaning service to come right after so that her mother won’t have to deal with it. She has given away her possessions and broken away from her all of her friends except for Jackson Gray who remains frustratingly loyal. Ellery is ready to die until the gun breaks when she tries to shoot herself.

Certain that shooting herself is the only viable suicide option she has, Ellery tries to return the faulty gun. Except she brings it to the wrong store. And catches the attention of the security guard, Colter Sawyer who recognizes Ellery from school. Colter sees the warning signs despite Ellery’s best efforts to deflect.

Colter’s brother killed himself and Colter felt powerless to stop him. He refuses to let the same thing happen to Ellery and embarks on a one-man mission to save her. Colter uses the threat of telling someone her plans to get Ellery to promise to try to be present and live until the end of October.

But that’s fine. Ellery can play along for a few weeks. She can ignore the way Colter gets under her skin and makes her feel something for once. Because Ellery has already chosen a new date to kill herself–the night of Halloween in Teach Me to Forget (2016) by Erica M. Chapman.

Teach Me to Forget is Chapman’s debut novel and one that has to be considered in two lights. As a piece of fiction it is well-written and engaging. As a book about a character suffering from mental illness and considering suicide . . . it could do a lot more.

While Chapman does mention resources for help both in the book and on her website, I would have liked them to be a bit more visible within the text.

**Spoilers to follow as I discuss what did and didn’t work in the text.**

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The Sun is Also a Star: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Because everything looks like chaos up close. Daniel thinks it’s a matter of scale. If you pull back far enough and wait for long enough, then order emerges.”

“Maybe their universe is just taking longer to form.”

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola YoonNatasha believes in science and facts. Her life doesn’t have room for fate or destiny. Which is why it’s so hard to hope for a miracle on her last day in New York City. Natasha’s family is going to be deported to Jamaica in twelve hours. Natasha doesn’t believe in long shots but it’s the only shot she has left to try and stay in the city that’s been her home since she was a child. She doesn’t have time to waste meeting a cute boy and maybe falling in love with him. Not when she is so busy trying to balance her practical nature with her hopes for some last-minute magic.

Daniel is used to being a good son. Not the best son because that’s always been his older brother. But solidly second best. Except now his brother screwed up big time and Daniel’s parents are pinning their hopes for having a Successful-Ivy-League-Graduate-Doctor in the family on Daniel. The problem is that Daniel wants to be a poet–something his Korean immigrant parents can’t understand. At. All. Daniel believes in poetry and fate which is why he knows the moment he sees Natasha on the street in Times Square that their lives are about the change forever.

It feels like the universe or fate or something Big is conspiring to bring Natasha and Daniel into each others’ lives. But over the course of a day filled with possibility, neither Natasha nor Daniel is sure if that will be enough to keep them together in The Sun is Also a Star (2016) by Nicola Yoon.

The Sun is Also a Star is Yoon’s second novel. It was a finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has received six starred reviews. (UPDATE:) The Sun is Also a Star also received an honor for the 2017 Printz Award.

All of that is impressive on its own but it’s also important to remember that we often hold contemporary romances like this one up to a higher standard when considering them for awards based on literary merit which makes this book stand out even more as both an exemplar of contemporary romance at its best and also as a generally excellent book.

The Sun is Also a Star is set over the course of one day but the plot is more far-reaching with interconnecting narratives and characters related to each other by six (or even fewer) degrees of separation.

The majority of the novel alternates between Natasha and Daniel’s first person narrations with their distinct voices and world views. Other chapters follow characters who are key to bringing Daniel and Natasha together including a depressed security guard, a subway conductor who has found god, and even Natasha and Daniel’s parents–all chronicled as brief histories. This shifting story maintains a consistent and deliberate voice thanks to the omniscient narrator whose sections contrast well with Natasha’s pragmatic nature and Daniel’s classic dreamer outlook in their respective narrations.

This thoughtful story also nicely subverts some of the traditional gender roles found in contemporary romances. Natasha is an unapologetically smart girl who works hard and knows that life isn’t fair. She is jaded and ambitious. Daniel, meanwhile, is a genuinely nice and optimistic boy who believes in the power of fate even while learning how to make his own choices and stand by them.

Everything in The Sun is Also a Star refers back–sometimes subtly and sometimes not–to the idea of love being a driving force in the universe. All of the tangential characters whose actions work to bring Natasha and Daniel together through happenstance or fate are working on some basis of love–the train conductor who has found god and loves life, the security guard who is lonely and mired in her own lack of love both from others and for herself, the attorney and his paralegal. It’s all love in one form or another. Even Natasha’s father and his actions are driven by his conflict between his love for his family and his love of performing.

Yoon does so many things in The Sun is Also a Star and she does them all well, while making it seem effortless with a combination of literary prose and a deceptively sleek plot. This book juggles multiple characters, narratives, and plot threads to create a coherent story about the many factors bringing Natasha and Daniel together as well as those which are conspiring to keep them apart. It evokes an authentic New York City setting not just a shiny tourist one but the dingy parts too. The Sun is Also a Star does all of that while offering an intellectually stimulating story that still manages to be upbeat and romantic. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, The Truth Commission by Susan Juby, The Romantics by Leah Konen, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick, Summer in the Invisible City by Juliana Romano, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

Wild Swans: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Wild Swans by Jessica SpotswoodThe Milbourn legacy started with Ivy’s great grandmother–a talented painter who killed herself and two of her children by driving in front of a train. Dorothea survived the crash and went on to meticulously journal her life, win a Pulitzer for her poetry, and be murdered by her lover’s wife. Ivy’s mother fled her responsibilities as a mother and a Milbourn when Ivy was two-years-old. Ivy hasn’t seen her mother since.

Now Ivy is seventeen and looking forward to a summer free of the responsibilities of being a Milbourn and the numerous enrichment classes that Granddad usually encourages in his efforts to support Ivy and find her latent Milbourn talent. Those plans fall apart when her mother comes home unexpectedly with two daughters who have never met, or even heard, about Ivy.

Confronted with the reality of her mother’s indifference and her family’s broken edges, Ivy begins to crack under the pressures of her unexpected summer. Ivy finds solace in poetry, swimming, and a beautiful tattooed boy but she isn’t sure any of that will be enough to help her determine her own legacy in Wild Swans (2016) by Jessica Spotswood.

Wild Swans is Spotswood’s first foray into contemporary fiction and demonstrates her range as an author. This novel is grounded in the creativity and madness of the Milbourn women whose shadows haunt Ivy even as she struggles to find her own place among her talented ancestors.

This character-driven story is a charming and effective book. The story is quiet in terms of action, a fact that is balanced well with Spotswood’s characterization and ensemble cast. This relatively slim slice-of-life story touches on poetry, feminism, family, and even transgender identity.

Wild Swans is an introspective and evocative story about family, inspiration, and choice. Highly recommended for fans of contemporary fiction, readers (and writers of poetry), and feminists (or proto-feminists) of all ages.

Possible Pairings: The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, The Careful Undressing of Love by Corey Ann Haydu, Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot, What My Mother Doesn’t Know by Sonya Sones, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson, The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

You can also read Jessica’s guest post for Poetically Speaking about this novel and the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay!

The Sky is Everywhere: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You can tell your story any way you damn well please. It’s your solo.”

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy NelsonLennie Walker plays second clarinet, reads avidly, and always acted as a sounding board and companion for her dynamic older sister, Bailey. Lennie had always known that Bailey was the star of their family. She never minded.

When Bailey dies suddenly, Lennie feels like the world has tilted off its axis. Her grandmother and Uncle Big are both hurting too. But none of them seem to know how to talk to each other anymore let alone articulate the full scope of their grief.

Toby, Bailey’s boyfriend, offers Lennie an unlikely source of comfort. Toby is just as wrecked as her and might be the only person who can fully understand the enormity of Bailey’s absence. Lennie knows her sister wouldn’t approve of the physical turn their relationship has taken. But Lennie also doesn’t know how to stop.

Joe, a new boy in town, seems determined to befriend Lennie and lift her out of her sorrow, Lennie finds herself swept along with his exuberant enthusiasm for life. Joe makes Lennie happy and reminds her of the girl she used to be before Bailey died–and maybe even shows her an improved version she can be now. After. But Lennie doesn’t know how she can ever let Joe make her feel so happy and so alive when Bailey is gone.

Lennie knows that Toby and Joe can’t exist in the same world, that they can’t both be part of her life forever. But she also doesn’t know how to choose in The Sky is Everywhere (2010) by Jandy Nelson.

The Sky is Everywhere is frenetic, serendipitous, and sometimes painful–things readers will recognize in Nelson’s subsequent Printz/Stonewall Award winning I’ll Give You the Sun.

This story has the same sense of wonder, the same vibrancy found in I’ll Give You the Sun. Even Lennie’s narrative voice is familiar compared to that of Noah and Jude. Unfortunately, The Sky is Everywhere lacks the tight plotting and pacing. While utterly sympathetic, Lennie’s story often feels meandering and contrived.

This novel is peppered with memorable characters, especially in Lennie’s grandmother and local Lothario Uncle Big. Moments of share grief are contrasted sharply against these quirky and strong personalities.

Lennie’s hurt and grief are palpable as she tries to reconcile the fact that she is still alive and growing up with the reality that Bailey never will. Nelson expertly communicates the suffocating nature of that sadness in Lennie’s first person narration. Each chapter also begins with a poem Lennie has written and left somewhere around town.

Although Lennie spends the novel torn between two boys, The Sky is Everywhere is largely introspective and firmly focused on Lennie. In some ways both Toby and Joe often feel under-developed by comparison as they help Lennie’s development. Romantic elements aside, this book is very much about a character learning to find her voice and articulate her wants and feelings.

The Sky is Everywhere remains a solid debut and a thoughtful meditation on grief, loss, and moving on. Nelson includes a compelling romance with a bit of a love triangle and, of course, an empowering character who only grows stronger and more confident as the novel progresses. Recommended for fans of Nelson’s and readers looking for a story in this vein. (Just don’t expect it to measure up if you read I’ll Give You the Sun first.)

Possible Pairings: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, The Last Time We Were Us by Leah Konen, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

Ghosts: A Graphic Novel Review

Ghosts by Raina TelgemeierCat’s little sister Maya has Cystic Fibrosis and everyone hopes that the climate in Bahía de la Luna will help her breathing. Cat is sad to leave her friends behind and she isn’t sure what to expect when everyone in town starts talking about ghosts. With the Day of the Dead approaching, all of Bahía de la Luna is preparing to welcome the town’s otherworldly guests.

Cat is afraid of the ghosts while Maya is determined to meet one. Their search for new friends, ghostly and otherwise, will bring Cat and Maya closer together. It will also introduce them to the wonders to be found in their new town–especially when it comes to el dia de los muertos in Ghosts (2016) by Raina Telgemeier.

At this point in her career, Raina Telgemeier hardly needs an introduction. The detailed artwork is a vibrant and beautiful as ever. Stunning artwork brings Bahía de la Luna to life. A heartwarming atmosphere (with a diverse case of characters) combines well with Telgemeier’s signature artwork to create a satisfying read.

The problem is that Ghosts isn’t just a book about ghosts. Instead Telgemeier borrows and embellishes elements of the Day of the Dead for her plot. Notably, she also features calaveras (skeletons doing everyday things) that are often synonymous with the Day of the Dead. Calaveras as we know them were created by Jose Guadalupe Posada–an artist who is never mentioned in Ghosts. (If you want to know more about Calaveras, check out Duncan Tonantiuh’s excellent Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras.)

Then there’s the issue of actual ghosts playing any role at all: While the ghosts in the story are fun and key to the plot, they are not true to the spirit or significance of Day of the Dead in Mexican culture.

I can (and on first reading did) give a pass to a lot of things. Some readers have questioned the fact that Cat and Maya know nothing about their Mexican heritage on their mother’s side. While that raises another red flag, it didn’t bother me in the context of  the story where Cat’s mother was estranged from her family and lost touch with her own mother.

Before digging into other reviews and posts, I also didn’t know enough about the Day of the Dead to pinpoint the specific problems in Ghosts although I knew there might be some (it’s unfortunately always a risk when authors write outside of their own culture/expertise).

Because Telgemeier is such a popular author, it’s not possible to simply say this book should be avoided. As I said, it is a thoughtful story in many ways and were it simply a fantasy comic, it would work quite nicely. Unfortunately the cultural elements are handled poorly and need a lot of context.

If you are going to pick up Ghosts or if you know a young reader who is, try to start a conversation about it so that everyone can learn something from it.

Here are some posts to get you started:

Reading While White has a thoughtful discussion on this problem including a very insightful comment from author/illustrator Yuyi Morales.

Teen Services Underground also has a review from librarian Faythe Arredondo who is half-Mexican and discusses some of the culturally problematic aspects she found while reading the graphic novel.

Karen Jensen at Teen Librarian Toolbox also explores some of the issues surrounding Ghosts in a post on her blog.

Debbie Reese has a thorough look at Ghosts complete with images from the book at American Indians in Children’s Literature.

.*An advance copy of this title was acquire from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2016*

The Last True Love Story: A Review

The Last True Love Story by Brendan KielyTeddy Hendrix feels adrift with his grandfather, Gpa, in an assisted living facility slowly dying of Alzheimer’s. His dad is long dead and his mother is more concerned with traveling for her job which leaves Hendrix alone to watch Gpa’s deterioration.

Hoping to appease Gpa and ease his own anxiety about his condition, Hendrix makes a promise he isn’t sure he can keep. He promises to bring Gpa across the country, east, to Ithaca where he first met and married Gma. Hendrix has no idea how his driver’s license-less self is going to do that until everything starts to gel on an unlikely summer night.

Hendrix has been watching Corrina play all summer. Corrina is a talented musician chafing under her adoptive parents’ strict rules. Adopted from Guatemala she feels at a remove from her family and her supposed friends. She wants to get away from town and try to jump start her music career.

Realizing they can help each other, Hendrix and Corrina decide to take a chance on each other. They take a car, grab Hendrix’s dog Old Hump, and pick up Gpa to start heading to the east coast. Of course, nothing else goes exactly to plan in The Last True Love Story (2016) by Brendan Kiely.

The Last True Love Story has been the subject of much buzz and critical acclaim. Which it absolutely deserves. Kiely’s writing is smooth and lyrical while also being straightforward. Hendrix and Corrina are interesting characters who are vibrantly portrayed in Hendrix’s first-person narration.

At the same time, The Last True Love Story is a difficult book. Gpa (why is he called Gpa?) and his struggles with the progression of Alzheimer’s is hard to read. Hendrix’s grief over losing the man who raised him long before he dies is painful. Because of that, this book isn’t going to work for everyone.

Readers who can deal with the inherent melancholy and sadness will be rewarded with a surprisingly optimistic and humorous book. Like all good road trip books The Last True Love Story is filled with excitement, adventure, and introspection. The addition of Kiely’s thoughtful prose and distinctive characters further elevate this novel. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Pirouette by Robyn Bavati, Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen, Be Good Be Real Be Crazy by Chelsea Philpot, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes by Randy Ribay, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider