ARC Review: Trash Can Days by Teddy Steinkellner

tcd coverTrash Can Days: A Middle School Saga by Teddy Steinkellner
Published August, 20th, 2013
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My rating: ★★★☆☆

How many times have I heard someone say high school is the best years of everyone’s lives? Too many times. For me, high school did not make up the *best years of my life, but they weren’t the worst. The worst is reserved for middle school. I never think back and feel a warm, bubbly wave of heated affection for middle school, because those years mark the cruelest three years of my… my what, exactly? Childhood? Adolescence? No. Middle schoolers are at that awkward in-between age, stuck leaving their childhoods behind as they move on to becoming full-fledged teenagers. It’s the pre-teen years, and for many students, this not only means fluctuating hormones, but changes in social hierarchy. I will shoot the most incredulous look I can muster if anyone claims these years bring back fond memories. Because they don’t. And no child can escape the terrors of †tweenhood. And Teddy Steinkellner? I think he understands this.

Pre-adolescence is a confusing period to navigate, and Steinkellner’s debut novel, Trash Can Days, captures just how uncomfortable it can be. The book surprised me by how realistically the author portrays junior high (or in my case: middle school) life—this is no Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Alvin Ho, or even Lizzy McGuire or Breakfast Club. Characters are betrayed by their friends and family, several are bullied, others desperately wish to fit in while one wants to dominate the top of the social ladder, and a more serious matter of gangs and gang violence threaten to permeate one character’s life. Despite all this, Steinkellner writes with laugh-out-loud humor that balances the novel’s drama.

In first-person narrative, Trash Can Days follows the lives of four characters voyaging through junior high. Jake and Hannah Schwartz—siblings, separated in age by one year—couldn’t be any more different from each other. Jake—with his bushy hair, questionable fashion taste, and endless love for “childish things”—becomes not so much of a nerd but a scapegoat. He’s an easy target for bullies, even for his sister and (former?) best friend. Hannah, however, is the Queen Bee we all know and hate—but Steinkellner humanizes her character, however self-absorbed and irritating she remains. Next is Danny Uribe, a boy whose body is growing faster than his brain, which reels in all sorts of drama that rivals Hannah—and that’s a lot of drama. That leaves Dorothy Wu, the loveable weird girl who feels perfectly undisturbed about her friendless state or low social rank.

It’s on rare occasions that I’m not completely turned off by alternating perspectives in a book, and Teddy Steinkellner’s Trash Can Days is part of the exception. Often, I find that I become attached to one character and will skim-through other passages to read more from that person’s perspective. I can’t say this didn’t happen with Trash Can Days, as I instantly fell for Dorothy. What’s not to love about “weird” characters? They’re exceptionally different from the herd, and that is what makes them interesting. The diversity Steinkellner provides—and not just ethnically, but in depictions and personalities—makes a curious hook for all characters, so as much as I adore Dorothy, I find Danny’s, Hannah’s, and Jake’s storylines equally engaging.

I felt so engaged, in fact, that it maddened me. Why couldn’t these characters have been a part of my childhood or pre-adolescence? I wish they had been, because no matter how devoted I am to Lizzy McGuire, Trash Can Days is an accurate snapshot of school-life. I wasn’t one of the popular elite, but I wasn’t sitting with the “geeks and freaks” at lunch, either. I related to Lizzy because we were alike in this way, but I didn’t always have a loyal twosome who had my back at all costs. Middle school is a vicious place sometimes, and the lives of many middle schoolers aren’t PG-rated—sorry, Lizzy. This is what attracts me to Trash Can Days, and the well-blended humor makes for an added bonus.

Realistic portrayal aside, I found I relate to Steinkellner’s book because I see parts of myself in many of these characters, and I think others will, too. Where Jake and I are alike rests in his habit to brood and wallow. Ugh! (In self-defense, I look back on this period of my life in shame. “It was hormonal,” I say. “What almost-teen/actual-teen isn’t moody?” I don’t puke rainbows and sunshine for anyone.) As frustrating as he is at times, I extend my sympathy toward Jake because I understand him. And Dorothy? I saw my old thirst to write reflected in her, but her character brings so much more than passion to the story.

Dorothy feels no fear in doing what she wants to do. Unlike many teenagers, what people think doesn’t worry her. She’s bold enough to attend dances solo and scare people in the hallways with feral animal noises. She loves to write and writes about anything, reflecting reality in her fantasies. Her favorite activities include manga-reading, Internetting, video-gaming, and following her morning ritual of brushing her hair 151 times (one stroke for each original Pokémon). She’s strange but quirky. Dorothy is simply Dorothy, and it’s this unique quality that makes her a courageous, beautiful character.

Hannah and Danny are the two I had the most difficulty connecting to. It’s not that I didn’t see aspects of myself in Hannah, because I do, but in a much less diva-like way. In Hannah’s mind, her school is “Hollywood” and she is “US Weekly.” She can write a book with the amount of gossip she files away, which—yes!—she does, but in blog-form. A couple cruel and undeserving incidents happen to Hannah, and although these experiences allow her to change, it’s a turtle-slow process.

But Danny? I have never felt so frustrated by a fictional thirteen year old before. Danny enters junior high a changed boy, and not just physically. Athletic and attractive, he’s much more well-liked than Jake. He’s the guy girls begin to notice, Hannah included, but he also attracts attention from the local gang. From the start, I rooted for him. I wanted him to do well, and then… Danny makes one wrong choice after another. He questions where he belongs: with Jake’s ritzy folk, or with his Hispanic family from the gang-run east end?

I am white, middle-class America living in a less-than-diverse town. Of course I don’t relate to Danny on personal levels, but I feel Steinkellner articulates Danny’s struggle in comprehensive detail. Why Danny upsets me, however, is not about him questioning his place in the community. It’s about him behaving like a terrible friend and not acknowledging it. It’s about his lack of apologies, and how he dares to intentionally lead a friend into a life-threatening situation. Danny makes me angry because he steps up a little too late.

So yeah. Danny pisses me off!

But the book? The book is fresh air. It’s what realistic fiction needs to be: realistic without the cheese-lathered side-dish of hunky-dory.

(*If high school is as good as life gets, then I am a rolling wrecking ball crumpled in eternal regret.

I know, “tweenhood” is an abomination of a word. I did wrong. I am sorry.)


Thank you to NetGalley and Disney Book Group for providing a free copy of Trash Can Days: A Middle School Saga in exchange for my honest review.

ARC Review: Skin by Donna Jo Napoli

SkinSkin by Donna Jo Napoli
Release date: August 6th, 2013
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My rating: ★★☆☆☆

I should know better than to read a Donna Jo Napoli ARC. I really should, and now I am kicking myself in the shin with my other foot for requesting it. What possessed me? Because now I am left to write a negative review for a book that sounded interesting but disappointed me as a reader—and I knew it would. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew. It goes back to Napoli’s 2006 novel, Bound. I must have read this book when I was nine or ten years old, and Xing Xing’s story only had me half-absorbed. I wasn’t engrossed, but it is a light book that I did enjoy. Fast-forward to a couple of years later, however, and I found myself disappointed upon revisiting the same book. Bound, I discovered, is a book that tells a simple yet unoriginal story that lacks in profoundness. It was no longer this fanciful Cinderella re-telling I had cooked up in my head, and I wished to never pick up another book by Donna Jo Napoli.

But is it fair to base the entirety of an author’s work on one book? A book from seven years ago, no less? It’s safe to assume that Napoli’s craft in storytelling has matured since—that is what I told myself. I’d seen a few bloggers talking excitedly about Napoli’s books, and their excitement did a bad thing: it infected me. I was eager to read Napoli’s books. Me. Little old me—with a sad habit of scrutinizing literature—felt excited, and I ignored that twinkling sensation that said, “Warning: Approach with caution.”

This was bad. But not as bad as the situation Sep finds herself in.

I’ve been telling myself vitiligo is just a lack of coloring, so no matter how far it goes, it can’t look that bad. But it does. I can’t understand how—but it does. It’s revolting. A little shiver hums inside me, elusive and eerie.

Normally, I would be ashamed of myself for thinking this way, for being such a shallow jerk. In fact, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t think this at all. Normally, I would have empathy. If it weren’t me, I could look and be kind, charitable. But it is me.

On the first day back to school, high schooler Giuseppina, or simply “Sep,” awakens to white lips. No amount of scrubbing, waiting, and hoping will make the whiteness go away, as Sep soon discovers that vitiligo is taking over. What she does learn, however, is the lengths she will go to hide it. Her condition is nothing a little lipstick and clothing can’t cover, until it begins mapping her skin is places she can’t conceal: the palm of her hand, her neck, her face… Shaken with fear and embarrassment, Sep feels desperate to make her skin’s white patches revert to normal—and angry that they won’t. In Sep’s eyes, vitiligo has won, for once it becomes too wide-spread to mask, it will have doomed to her a loveless, lonely life.

As the saying goes, beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. It’s skin-deep. But isn’t it easier to believe this when addressing other people’s flaws and not your own? I’m like Sep: a person who can sympathize and empathize. I’m not a shallow jerk who stares at and makes fun of someone for the way she or he looks, and I certainly don’t think any less of that person. Yet, if I were in Sep’s shoes, I’d feel horrified, angry, terribly unlucky, and self-conscious, because my appearance matters to me. I relate to Sep in this way, yet worrying about her looks and trying to keep vitilgo hidden is the novel, and this is not the story I had hoped to read.

Skin is difficult for me to review, as I am torn between the story I had imagined versus the story Donna Jo Napoli has written. Not only does Sep waste too much time trying to cover up her condition, she spends it rushing to experience love and romance before it’s too late—before vitiligo conquers her body, because no one will want love her then. If she can’t love herself, who else will? The novel, overall, carries a noble message within its pages—that beauty and love go deeper than surface appearances—yet it’s a cliché sitting on top of a weak story. While Napoli’s message is an important one to learn, I don’t buy it. Not here, not for Sep.

I can’t just look to others to be kind to me. I can’t control that. I have to learn how to be kind to myself. To the animal that is me. To this body. This skin. This me.

The rational part of me knows that this is the job ahead.

It sounds so simple.

The world is a giant deception. Hardly anything is simple.

But for Sep, it does seem simple.

Through most of the novel, Sep focuses on covering up vitiligo with lipstick, cream, clothing, and lies, and within four chapters I am to believe that she reaches an overnight understanding of what it means to love oneself? Sep stops battling her skin and finds inner-peace in return. No doubt some people in this world, like Sep, quickly discover equanimity—however temporary—or a deeper-than-skin acceptance of who they are. I am not one of those people, and I know that feeling comfortable in my own body is easier said than felt. What I think of Skin doesn’t amount to very much, as the shallow storyline limits its own power and ability to move readers, but I am disappointed. I’m disappointed that it took over 300 pages for Sep to accept herself. I’m disappointed by how suddenly, and so simply, she overcomes this nightmare she fights against for months. I wish Sep came to this realization sooner in the story, as quarreling against the public perception of beauty—and still learning to accept oneself—beats a story about trying (and failing) to blend with the herd.

Thank you to NetGalley and Amazon Children’s Publishing for providing a free copy of Skin in exchange for my honest review.

ARC Review: Extremities by David Lubar

ExtremitiesExtremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge by David Lubar
Release date: July 23rd, 2013
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My rating: ★★☆☆☆

I’m a person who avoids horror. Not because horror scares me, but because it bores me, and if it doesn’t bore me, it frustrates me to the point where I scream at the television or the book in my hands. As a child, however, many things frightened me—scary things. Back in the glorious 1990s, Nickelodeon aired Are You Afraid of the Dark? (which I most certainly was). Kids gathered around campfire, spooking each other with ghost tales, and I will never forget the story of the haunted pool. The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float episode didn’t frighten me of ghosts or even pools; it made me fear water. Shower time? Not before it the water-monster strangles me. Take a swim? I’ll pass. Glass of water? He’s going to suffocate me from the inside!

So what does a ridiculous ‘90s show have to do with Extremities? Just like Are You Afraid of the Dark?, who will get the most enjoyment or thrills from Extremities depends on the reader. Looking back, Are You Afraid of the Dark? is as cheesy as cheesy gets. But the fact is that it still scared me and gave me an irrational fear of water. Now that I’m much older, what scares me has changed. People-eating giants makes me shiver, zombies are creepily fascinating, eerie dystopian settings horrify, and the psychological aspects to all these both terrify and excite me. Reality itself, even, can zap me dead in a second. These concepts put me in a panic—zero of which I find in Extremities—but none of this stopped me from reading Lubar’s book.

If there is one thing Lubar wants to note, it’s that “this is not a book for children.” Indeed it’s not, but I think who Extremities is most appropriate for varies. “At rare and random times, without any plan on my part,” says Lubar, “a story will emerge that is too dark, too heartless, or, dare I say it, too evil, for my young readers.” But that’s exactly it, that’s my problem. I didn’t find any of the stories within Extremities too dark, heartless, or evil. What I did find was a lack of suspense, predictable twists, and writing that wants to be smart but falls short.

When I first spied David Lubar’s Extremities, I felt a pull that I couldn’t resist. My lack of acquaintanceship with horror drew me to Lubar’s collection, as if we were a cute match but doomed to a petty break-up. While I thought I would like Extremities, the book serves as a reminder why I scarcely wander into this genre. David Lubar’s collection dances familiar paths of similar stories that have come before it. Although this doesn’t deem the book ‘poor quality,’ why didn’t the author take new turns? Hold my hand and lead me to a place I haven’t been before. Be daring and dangerous. Take risks. Whatever you do, dream beyond what’s already been done.

For each story, events flip-flop for the hero or heroine—either the character comes out the victor or victim, depending on how the story opens. Lubar’s tales take expected turns and end in likely fashion, which strips away the element of shock. Once the story reveals itself, usually paired with the title, the end becomes clear before the reader gets there. Prior to starting Extremities, I expected stories that weren’t horrifying or dark, but original ideas that held interest and surprise. These stories should have captivated me by their warped characters and by the irony of events, or at least that is what I wished for.

Well, Raya, maybe the fright doesn’t come from the conclusions. Maybe David Lubar’s point has nothing to do with unprecedented twists. I get that. Extremities is not intended to make the reader scream or spend a restless night waking from nightmares. It is intended to make the reader shudder, perhaps, at the thought of what these character do, witness, and experience. At the same time, I can’t deny that ingenuity would’ve helped improve the collection as whole. As one reader out of many, I didn’t shudder. I snickered at the irony and turn of events, and only because I saw them coming. If I wasn’t eyeballing the text with an ‘I told you so,’ I felt nearly bored. And yet… Extremities mildly entertained me.

For all that I’ve said, not everyone is doomed to have the same reaction. What Extremities needs most is the right audience—and that does not include me. There is something to be said for entertainment value, and for these reasons alone, David Lubar’s collection is one I still recommend. If haunting stories of any kind suit your fancy, then by all means, let this book find a home at your bedside and prepare to unleash some horrors from its pages.

Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan-Tor/Forge for providing a free copy of Extremities in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: Nicking Time by T. Traynor

Nicking TimeNicking Time by T. Traynor
Published June 1st, 2013
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My rating: ★★★☆☆

At first glance, Nicking Time appears to be a novel about friendship and growing up—an overdone theme, some might say, yet T. Traynor instills a vitality and refreshing youthfulness through her set of characters. Told by Midge, the story does not unfold through events, but sprawls out before the reader as the young narrator reflects on one particular summer from his childhood. What marks this summer as significant for Midge’s gang—Skooshie, Lemur, Bru, and Hector—is what comes at the end of it: change.

We know that it’s more than just an ordinary summer and that we’re expecting great things to happen. It has to be the best summer we’ve ever had because we’re all scared it’s going to be the last one. That at the end of it secondary school will swallow us up and make us different and everything might change between us.

It’s one thing to experience change the moment it hits, standing in the wake of sudden shock—life altered for better or worse. It’s a different experience to see that change coming ahead of time, and anxiety and excitement or fear fluster in a fit of stomach butterflies. Regardless of what lies ahead, so long as it’s seen beforehand, the remaining time between now and the future becomes precious. The boys sense a shift on the horizon coming to greet them, and they have every intention of making the most out of their summer vacation. With a list full of fun and adventure, their summer seems set, but is there enough time to do it all?

“So do we put ‘Invent Time Bank’ on the list of things we want to do this summer?” asks Skooshie.

“Might as well,” I say.

“OK,” says Hector, scribbling. “That’s number 7.”

“Read them out, Hector,” says Lemur.

“In no particular order—apart from the first one: Cathkin.”

“Even if we doing nothing else,” says Skooshie, “we do that. I would underline it, Hector, just so that’s clear.”

Hiding out in the cool shadow of their secret den, re-enacting battles, rolling in the grass, watching favorite TV shows, and playing the silly, normal games boys play make up the majority of Nicking Time. It largely consists of Midge and his friends adventuring, hopping from one activity to the next, and their plot to break into an rickety-old abandoned stadium. For most of the novel, little else happens, almost to the point where some might question a missing plot. For Traynor’s story to effectively work, to successfully convey Nicking Time’s theme, a defining moment needed to occur. Such a moment does occur, yet not in the way I first suspected, and it crosses the pages late into the story.

Nicking Time, as I said, appears to be a coming-of-age-like novel about childhood friendships. The keyword here is “appears.” Traynor’s novel remains, in certain ways, a story about five boys at the cusp of innocence, ready to enter their adolescent years. What I expected to sprout from this idea shares nothing in common with what the story does offer. As Midges says, “Some disappointment you just have to accept.”

Whether it involves fantasy elements, stays realistic, or even if it’s non-fiction, stories about childhood have always been one of my favorite type of stories to read. Many defining moments mark a person’s life, but more often than not, I find that childhood and leaving it behind can remain one of the more bittersweet tales to tell. Using Midge as her narrator, Traynor has written her book with the simplicity and naiveté of childhood ignorance. Nicking Time is cute, humorous, and most of all, I enjoyed it. However, by writing through Midge’s musings, there are instances of warning that foretell a possibly dark turn.

Perhaps I’ve seen and read too many similar stories that end tragically, or are characterized by uneasy tension. It’s possible, and it’s possible that I let these stories get the best of my expectations, because by the time Nicking Time makes that turn for change, I felt incredibly disappointed. Through all of Traynor’s hints, I suspected something terrible—that death, even—might strike down one of the boys. What better misery to crush one of their most memorable summers? But death awaits none of these boys, nor does anything equally or less tragic. Instead, the story takes on a surprising twist of paranormal nature.

For a mostly realistic but fictional novel, this paranormal twist felt as unsuspected as it is disjointing. At the same time, this aspect proves predictable. Once Traynor introduces this bizarre trait into the story, it’s difficult not to notice hints that the author has planted. By no means did I think Traynor would go do down this route at the beginning of story, but as the story progresses, it becomes clear. Compared to the places my imagination took me, the way in which Traynor concludes Nicking Time lacks spunk and the pulling of emotional heartstrings. Even if I hadn’t misinterpreted the author’s early tip-offs of what was to come, I greeted the paranormal development with an unwelcoming attitude. Rather than one, complete novel, Nicking Time feels like two different stories that collide. The result is not a smooth blending, but an awkward and brashly-concluded story.

Does this take away from the overall enjoyment of Traynor’s writing? In some ways, yes, but Nicking Time remains a likeable story. The narrator, Midge, is smart and funny—as are his friends and younger sister, Kit—and I cherish the moments they made me laugh.

We want to risk the gloom of the stand, lying back and staring up at the rusting roof. We want to walk over every bit of broken concrete, challenging each other to find and leap the most dangerous gaps. We want to be players, managers, spectators, villains, heroes. It’s the stage for so many possible adventures. It’s calling out and we’re the boys to answer it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Floris Books for providing a free copy of Nicking Time in exchange for my honest review.

Book Review: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

The Universe Versus Alex WoodsThe Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Release date: June 25th, 2013
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My rating: ★★★★☆

In case you didn’t know, in secondary school—especially in the early years of secondary school—diversity is not celebrated. In secondary school, being different is the worst crime you can commit. Actually, in secondary school, being different is pretty much the only crime you can commit.

At one point or another, most teenagers believe the universe is pitted against them. For Alex Woods, that seems to be the case—literally—as a chunk of meteorite crash-lands through the roof of his home and knocks him unconscious. Alex survives, but not without side-effects. In the aftermath, Alex gains the attention of media and develops an onset of epileptic seizures, but it is not just Alex’s fame, medical history, or the scar on his head that marks him an outcast. Wildly curious and interested in science coupled with social awkwardness makes him a target for school bullies. It is these bullies, however, who chase Alex right into Mr. Peterson’s yard. What starts as a rocky, uncertain relationship between the thirteen year old and Vietnam war veteran steadily turns into a life-altering friendship.

Now, at age seventeen, Alex once again finds himself at the center of media hype, but for different reasons entirely. His actions have set the country in uproar, and upon stopping at customs, he is found with 113 grams of marijuana and a full urn of ashes. Told from the viewpoint of the naïve yet exceptionally perceptive and smart Alex, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is a clever coming-of-age story. It’s a novel that comes full-circle, beginning and returning to the specific event which opens the story. Similar to that of a memoir, the pages in between reveal Alex’s reflections—from the moment the universe collides into Alex’s life to his friendship with Mr. Peterson and beyond.

Alex presents an endearing naïvety by nature, yet this is one quality he continually grows from. An insightful and observant individual, Alex does not lack keen awareness, and when that clarity is ever clouded, he fights to understand. He is more than smart, looking at the world through an innocent’s eyes—a common feature among coming-of-age stories. Alex is intelligent, evolving in character, odd in terms of typical teenagers, and quite the saint. Above all of Alex’s qualities, however charming, it is his belief in doing “the right thing” that wins me over. No matter what consequences may result, fear does not seem to phase Alex. Instead, he readily accepts what he believes he must do and any punishment that comes with it. In this respect, he displays valor—a characteristic that not only earns my respect, but makes him a valuable person to know.

“Still, not all scars are bad, Alex. Some are worth hanging on to, if you know what I mean.”

I believe that Alex is the heart of this novel, as the story rests and depends on his musings. It’s centered on the events in his life during a certain span of years, or rather: The Universe Versus Alex Woods is Alex’s story thus far, and in part of this story lives Mr. Peterson. The friendship that grows between the two characters becomes a turning point, as both Alex and Mr. Peterson affect one another through irreversible change—and for the better. Some of the book’s most gripping scenes prosper from this unexpected but somehow ordinary relationship, and much of the growth this book experiences stems from these parts. It’s a poignant aspect: one teenage outcast and one reclusive war veteran who find each other, connecting through their obstacles, Kurt Vonnegut’s writing, and perhaps through loneliness.

In the long history of human affairs, common sense doesn’t have the greatest track record.

The story Gavin Extence has written is a blast of fresh air: compelling, profound for its thoughtfulness, and touching with a sweet twinge of humor. I find that the charm and uniqueness  Gavin has instilled into his novel is difficult for me to communicate. It’s simple: I fear that I will ruin the plot for anyone who has yet to read this story. I fear that by saying more, I will remove the story’s capability to affect prospective readers. I can only encourage others to pick this book up and discover Alex’s story for themselves.

At a surface glance, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is the coming-of-age tale about a peculiar boy growing up under even more peculiar circumstances. This story, however, runs deeper than that. It’s thought-provoking literature that displays the small wonders in this vast, complex universe. At the same time, it handles expansive issues centering on life, death, personal right and responsibility. What I appreciate about Gavin’s way of dealing with these facets to the story is this: they are what they are—nothing more and nothing less. Gavin’s aim is not to persuade the reader of anything, but to let the story unfold and allow the reader to get lost its wonder. For a debut, The Universe Versus Alex Woods is immensely likable and it’s one that I won’t soon forget, and I suspect that its appeal will withstand decades to come.

The longest-lived of these particles could exist for only a few hundred-millionths of a second before decaying; the shortest-lived were so unstable that their existences couldn’t even be ‘observed’ in a conventional sense. They popped into being and were gone in the same tiny fraction of an instant, so quickly that no instrument had yet been invented that was sensitive enough to register their presence, which could only be inferred post mortem. But the more I thought about this, and the more I thought about how old the universe was, and how old it would become before it suffered its final heat death—when all the stars had gone out and the black holes had evaporated and all the nucleons decayed, and nothing could exist but the elementary particles, drifting through the infinite darkness of space—the more I thought about these things, the more I realized that all matter was akin to those exotic particles. The size and scale of the universe made everything else unimaginably small and fleeting.

Thank you to NetGalley and Hachette Book Group/Redhook for providing a free copy of The Universe Versus Alex Woods in exchange for my honest review.

ARC Review: Some Quiet Place by Kelsey Sutton

Some Quiet PlaceSome Quiet Place by Kelsey Sutton
Release date: July 8th, 2013
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My rating: ★★★☆☆

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.

As someone who very rarely reads books from the young adult paranormal category—and I do mean rarely (read: mostly never)—I approached Kelsey Sutton’s Some Quiet Place with a strange mix of apprehension and anticipation. It is only recently that I’ve begin to warm up to this genre, and even so, I’ve opened myself up to a mere few, such as the likes of Kendare Blake’s Anna Dressed in Blood. I have to face it: my paranormal shelf is a pathetically small. I suppose that is partly why I became interested in Sutton’s book. I wanted to expand my tastes and shatter misconceptions I have about this genre, but I also found the premise genuinely interesting.

I don’t know what it is to feel.

I can’t experience the freedom of grief, the abandon of ecstasy, the release of fury. And of course I can’t be curious about these experiences.

I don’t have the luxury of people around me. I can’t weep, I can’t lust, I can’t cower in terror, I can’t celebrate. Not in a true sense; I’ve grown talented in the art of pretending. The only sensation I’m capable of—not an Emotion but something physical—is a sort of … nothingness that’s always there.

Elizabeth Caldwell can feel no Emotion, not since she was a hit by a car as a child. While Emotions don’t affect her, she does, however, see them. On the day of a car accident, something in Elizabeth changed. Her eyes made discernible what no other human can see: Elements, like Fog, or Emotions, like Courage or Regret. As real as anyone, they roam the earth as invisible beings. One touch from an Emotion is enough to affect humans, but not Elizebath—and they’ve given up on ever influencing her. All but one: Fear. He’s determined to find the cause of what prevents Elizabeth from feeling, and when an evil presence begins stalking her, uncovering the truth may be Elizabeth’s only key for survival.

Because Elizabeth lacks any ability to feel, I worried. I worried because although Elizabeth doesn’t feel, she falls back on pure logic to understand people and the world she lives in. I wondered how little room—if any—this would leave for a personality. As much as I welcome smart characters, I won’t stick around if they’re sucked dry of life, but Kelsey Sutton shattered those worries on page one. Sutton impressed me, and quite instantly, because Elizabeth proved shockingly rounded. More than that, the prose puts evocative language to such good use that the main character’s resigned and muted qualities failed to bother me.

“You were going to live next door and we would grow old in the same nursing home. Chuck oatmeal at each other and watch soap operas all day in our rocking chairs. That was my day dream. My perfect life. I don’t want to keep asking myself why until the end, but…” A lone tear trails down her sunken cheek. This time I don’t reach out to wipe the water away; I let it go. Down, down, until it drips off the side of her jaw. This is humanity. This is life and death in one room.

For a good while, I believed Some Quiet Place would get a four-star rating out of me. The writing has quality and, for the most part, characters are complex and interesting. They’re solid and never hollow, and while the book is not perfect, I wanted to love it and let it enchant me. But then, slowly, the novel wore off its charm, and I looked passed Sutton’s well-written sentences. A little dismayed, I hate to say that I began noticing bothersome aspects.

If there is one predominant feature through all of young adult literature, it has to be love triangles. It’s tough enough trying to find young adult novels that don’t pair main characters up with at least one love interest, and it’s just as challenging—if not more—to stay away from love triangles. They’re rampant with no hint of dying out, and it surprises me how many authors choose the same romantic route. Some Quiet Place starts out well, like a nice showcase of good writing and the possibility of something more blooming between Elizabeth and Fear. Unfortunately, Kelsey Sutton introduces Joshua Hayes, who unknowingly becomes a wrecking ball. This is a problem, and for obvious reasons.

Scooting aside the issue that love triangles are annoying, I’m frustrated by a lack of committed relationships in young adult literature. Elizabeth Caldwell could have had something solid with either Joshua or Fear, yet her absence of feeling complicates her relationship with both boys. It’s Fear, though, whom she shares the most with, and it always felt like they had stronger compatibility. (I should also admit my inclination toward Fear over Joshua. Fear is “the bad boy,” while Joshua remains the opposite. Fear displays a disturbing quality a few times that screams possessiveness, and that didn’t go unnoticed by me. At the same time, Joshua’s character bored me while Fear proved more interesting.) The idea that Elizabeth will, for some reason, “need” Joshua in the end—which is what Elizabeth believes—constantly pops up as if to remind the reader why he’s there. This made the love triangle feel strained and forcefully added in.

We’re silent, a fragmented pretense of belonging, and we all know it.

Some Quiet Place is not, however, a paranormal romance—at least it doesn’t feel that way. There is little to no lusting or yearning, which has much to do with Elizabeth’s unique situation, and there are other issues besides romance that Sutton tries to address. Issues such as bullying, abuse from Elizabeth’s father, and the great mystery that surrounds Elizabeth’s accident. These other issues, however, feel somewhat like background noise. Take Maggie, for example. She is Elizabeth’s only friend who is dying of cancer, but her role didn’t feel as important as it’s meant to be. It’s true that Elizabeth’s own disconnect contributed to my own, but Maggie seems insignificant if she can’t mean anything to the main character. And when Elizabeth should be uncovering the truth about who and what she is, Joshua becomes a distraction or she’s thinking about Fear. While there were moments where I wasn’t sure who Elizebeth would end up with—Fear or Joshua—it is unfortunate that the romance out-does the book’s other conflicts.

This book starts out on good footing, but as the story progresses, it trips over its own feet. Despite that and slow pacing, I can’t deny the talent in Kelsey Sutton. She can write, and she does write—perhaps with more overshadowing romance than I prefer or deem necessary, but potential for growth is there in an already good writer. For that reason alone, I look forward to seeing more from this author and intend to read her future work.

The truth is, I hide my real nature, because if I don’t, my nothingness would consume me. I would become a wondering creature, with no connection and no soul. My life in Edson isn’t perfect at all, but it is a life—the only one I’ll ever have. So, even though I can’t hold any feeling for my place in this family or this town, I will hold onto it because I can.

Thank you to NetGalley and Flux for providing a free copy of Some Quiet Place in exchange for my honest review.

ARC Review: Underneath by Sarah Jamila Stevenson

UnderneathUnderneath by Sarah Jamila Stevenson
Release date: June 8th, 2013
| GoodreadsB&NThe Book Depository |
My rating: ★★★☆☆

*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.

I’m in the zone, quiet, just me and the other end of the pool beckoning me, coming inexorably closer with every stroke. My happy place. One of the reasons I swim. Really, the only reason I—

ohgod, ohgod—
NO! no. no. no. no—

It sounds like a scream, and I pop my head up, my legs floundering in the pool. Who’s dead? My hands go reflexively to my ears as I try to block out the sounds threatening to drown me.

The wake of the person in the next lane washes over me, pushing chlorinated water into my nose and mouth. I cough and sputter, my sinuses burning, and take a quick glance around. But I’ve realized by now that nobody was screaming. It was all in my head.

Having odd, New Age parents might, under certain circumstances, interfere with a child’s popularity status, but Sunshine “Sunny” Pryce-Shah is admired and accepted by her peers. Above all, she has her older and well-liked cousin, Shiri, to guide her and confide in. Or she used to, and now Sunny’s world is slowly beginning to fall apart. In the stir of Shiri’s suicide, amongst hurt and heartache, a frightening ability awakens within Sunny: she can hear people’s thoughts, or—as Sunny calls it—“underhearing.”

What I expected from this novel was complete uncertainty, not knowing whether Underneath and I were a destined match. I did, however, find the premise curious enough to not only dip a finger in but take a full-body dive. In the end, what I am left with is a back-and-forth bounce, questioning if I like Stevenson’s novel. I did, in fact, enjoy the story, but do I really like this? Well, yes… and no.

If there is one thing I can say about Sarah Jamila Stevenson, it’s that she knows how to write. Her characters are nothing if not rounded, all in coexistence with quality writing and good humor. Because humor—sometimes subtle and quiet, but always evident when mingled in—can easily overthrow critical aspects, I’m thankful that this is not the case. What I find is a balance between easy-flowing text and important issues. This provides an appropriate mood, acknowledging important issues without side-stepping them. With so many troubling tensions laid down—from death and abuse to more trivial problems—what worried me, then, is how Stevenson would handle each one.

More often than not, I find books with jagged pacing. Either quickened or dragged out, the uneven quality lacks a true sense of closure. When an abundance of conflicts arise, I only hope that the author neatly resolves each one. And so I waited. I waited for Stevenson to whip out the ironing board and work out all these crinkles. As I came closer to the last page, however, I began to doubt Stevenson’s intentions in smoothing the storyline in time for the conclusion. Yet in the moment I read the last page—truly, not realizing it was the last page—relief escaped me.

Dearest Sarah Jamila Stevenson: You did it.

The way Stevenson approaches and handles conflict is what I appreciate most about this novel. Nothing feels unesessarily drawn out or lugged at an erratic speed. Sunny contends each issue separately and with a clear head, or as clearly as possible in light of Shiri’s death. Not to forget, of course, Sunny’s mysterious new talent. Rather than mope or blow matters into a hurricane of melodrama, she often suffers quietly but strives for solutions. One of the obvious challenges Sunny faces is how to move on from Shiri’s death, which has left her scared and feeling alone in the world—emotions that her underhearing amplify.

Events that follow Shiri’s funeral prove sour as life takes a plunge. Unable to control her new ability, isolation and worry plague Sunny after discovering what her so-called best friend, Cassie, really thinks of her. This becomes a turning point for Sunny, as the incident ends their friendship. Dejected and booted out from her own herd, tentacles of isolation start to creep and envelope Sunny, but they retreat once she integrates into a new circle. While I feel that such occurrences among friends and “frenemies” prevail in the high school setting, I am left confused.

I wonder why the two former best friends remain fixed in opposition toward each other. It is, after all, a petty tiff in which little—virtually nothing—is said. What is underheard, however, would be a slap to anyone’s face. In this regard, I understand Sunny’s dejection and avoidance, but where does this leave Cassie? Is she simply mean-spirited to use a small argument as enough reason to turn against a friend? I can’t help but toy with the idea of drama here. If more drama about Cassie’s self-absorption, or at least a confrontation, had been added, I think the relationship’s end would have solid ground. As it stands, Cassie might be a complex individual if you peel her layers, but it is in the way she conducts herself that show shallow character.

Two subject matters that bear heavier weight in Underneath surround not only the aftermath of Shiri’s suicide, but the fragility of family. One of the more resilient characters, notable for her growth, is Auntie Mina: Shiri’s mother. Described as submissive and weak—traits that often frustrated a more independent Shiri—I was happy to watch Mina flourish into independence. Her journey is not an easy one, and the death of her only child is something that will either kill or help push her into a brighter direction. With the support of family, Mina finds an inner-strength and—standing tall with dignity—fights her demons.

Family, in fact, plays an important role in the novel. The Pryce-Shah household thoroughly charmed me, and I haven’t felt as amused and touched by a fictional family in some time. Truly, the Pryce-Shahs sparkle with a kind of refreshing quality that can only make me smile. During a time that must be one of the family’s more difficult periods, I loved seeing each member band together. It’s everything a family is and should be: protective and loving, as well as supportive enough to know when it’s time to let go.

I open the front door.

I sense my mother and Auntie Mina both standing behind me, and my mom grabs my arm, but I pull away. I glance at her; she’s holding a golf umbrella.

“Just in case,” she says, the tiniest wry smile twitching at her lips. “I don’t think we’ll need it, but you never know.” I show her the phone in my hand, the numbers 9-1-1 already punched in. She squeezes my shoulder gently this time.

After all that’s been said, why, then, don’t I love this novel? Because while I do enjoy Stevenson’s writing, there are a few aspects that prevent me from feeling enthralled by it. There are some books, while likeable and easy to jump in to, I struggle to find a connection with. Underneath is one of those books. As a character, Sunny’s level-headedness and maturity impress me. At the same time, she does feel overdone in a clean-cut role, especially when it comes to her morals. It’s during such instances—as well as some others—that I feel the writing turns stiff and contributes to my lack of emotional attachment. It’s not that don’t find the characters unrealistic or unrelatable, because I found enjoyment in the time I spent reading Underneath. As much as those small dull moments do little to woo a reader, however, my unattachment is also to blame.

Underneath comes across as a light novel, yet it also grapples with several issues that span from Shiri’s death, Sunny’s underhearing, hopeful romance, betrayals, and domestic abuse. Stevenson conveys the seriousness and discomfort that arises from these conflicts, but through use of humor and steady resolve, she doesn’t allow them to fray the plot. As one can see, Underneath contains a paranormal element, but the novel as a whole comes across as realistic fiction. Although there are times when the story and Sunny’s character fall flat, Underneath is a delightful novel about the pains of loss and relationships. It’s a novel that inspires, because despite life’s hardships, there is always a tomorrow.

We’ll always have yesterday… and today, and tomorrow.

Thank you to Netgalley and Flux for providing a free copy of Underneath in exchange for my honest review.