The Upside of Unrequited

Hello everyone!

It’s a stiflingly hot summer day here in Maryland, a.k.a. the perfect day to hide out inside with lots of ice water and books and YouTube (until the dog needs a walk, of course). And one of the books that I’ve really enjoyed diving into recently has been The Upside of Unrequited, by Becky Albertalli.

I’ve been meaning to read Albertalli’s award-winning debut Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda for ages now, but while my library didn’t have it in stock, it did have The Upside of Unrequited, published just a few months ago in April 2017. And oh my goodness, am I glad I checked it out.

The book is narrated by Molly Peskin-Suso, a crafty, chubby seventeen year old twin living in Takoma Park, Maryland, who has had twenty-six crushes already in her short life. Molly is a true romantic, falling fast and hard, but she’s always, always careful. After all, she has to be, right?

Molly’s twin Cassie, however, doesn’t tend to get lovestruck at all–that is until she falls hard for Mina, a girl she and Molly meet at a concert one night. As they begin their own relationship, Mina and Cassie become determined to set Molly up with Mina’s friend Will–something the ever-cautious Molly is not exactly thrilled about, as cute as he is. And then there’s Reid, Molly’s nerdy, funny, Lord of the Rings-loving coworker. It’s all shaping up to be an extremely interesting start to the summer, to say the least. Now Molly just has to figure out how to navigate it.

One of the things that really drew me into The Upside of Unrequited (and made it way too hard to put down) was Molly’s voice. It took me a couple of chapters to truly get a sense of her character, but after that, I was hooked. There’s no question that Molly is shy and introverted, and she finds it extremely difficult to have as much confidence as her twin sister–in her body, around other people, etc. But one of the best things about The Upside of Unrequited was getting to watch Molly gain that confidence, in her own way. Everyone has their insecurities, and while Molly of course has her fair share, she is also a very well-written, strong character with tons of development. I loved that her gaining of confidence was not linked to any boy liking her, but rather, her learning to like herself more, and consciously deciding to take more risks and try to step out of her comfort zone a little. Plus, Molly’s narration is just so perfectly her–from her love of arts and crafts, to her trepidation over her and Cassie’s changing relationship, to her talent for baking. I have never read a book that made me crave cookie dough so much in my life.

It was also really refreshing to read a book featuring a teenage main character who takes anxiety medication, without it being a huge deal. With how stigmatized mental health issues still are, there was something about reading about Molly’s anxiety as just another facet of her character that made my heart happy. While there’s obviously no problem with books that focus more on a character’s mental health, I like that there are also books showing that it doesn’t have to be a big deal, or that medication doesn’t have to be a big deal. Plus, speaking as someone who has also dealt with her fair share of anxiety, it was comforting to read about a character who goes through the same anxious thought-loops, even if it was just one part of the book. It made me only enjoy and relate to Molly’s character more.

Of course, I couldn’t help but fall in love with many of the other characters, too, especially Molly’s family. While Cassie is of course very different from Molly, despite their shared DNA, and I didn’t relate to her nearly as much, she obviously loves Molly just as much Molly loves her, and fiercely at that. She is just as unsure about the shifts in their sisterhood as Molly is, but I loved the way Albertalli portrayed those shifts (growing apart, being nervous about growing apart, etc.) in a way that felt very real and genuine. I also enjoyed the way she showed Cassie’s side of things, too, even though the book is narrated by Molly.

The rest of their family is no less lovable. Their moms, Patty and Nadine, are both funny, supportive, and so enjoyable to read about, not to mention that the twins’ baby brother sounds way too cute to be legal. Many of Molly’s and Cassie’s friends are also unique, well written characters that only made the book richer, especially their best friends Abby and Olivia. However, I think the one I was most fond of (and this is a hard decision) was ultimately Reid, Molly’s adorable, dorky coworker whose fascination with Queen Elizabeth the First was both hilarious and relatable (to an extent). It’s not hard to see why Molly likes him so much, and it makes the reader love him, too.

However, arguably the thing that made me love this book the most was how genuine and real everything in it felt. Molly’s voice is so perfectly that of a seventeen year old girl still figuring out who she is and what she wants, and all the other characters feel just as authentic. This is especially true with how rich and realistic the cast of characters is in its diversity–Molly and her family are Jewish, one of her moms and her little brother are black, Mina is Asian and pansexual, the list goes on. This is the kind of diversity that should be everywhere in books these days, and while it’s sad that it isn’t, it’s great to read a book that actually shows that inclusiveness. Plus, there’s a certain sort of thrill in reading a book set not very far from your own home (I knew exactly what kind of Metro poles Molly was talking about!).

All in all, The Upside of Unrequited is an excellently written story about growing up and coming into one’s own that I absolutely loved reading, even when I probably should have been sleeping. It’s a perfect book to get lost in, and I wanted to hang out with Molly in its pages forever. Now I just hope that my library finally has Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda back in stock.

Thanks for reading everyone, and have a great rest of your weekend!

Nora

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The Hate U Give

Hello everyone!

It has been quite awhile since my last post, and lots of exciting things have happened, the most obvious being that I am officially done with high school! Summer break has been pretty great so far, needless to say, what with providing truly delicious amounts of free time for reading, sleeping, and finally getting the chance to watch The Get Down. (Don’t even talk to me about Netflix canceling it. I could write an essay on what a messed up decision that is.) And for working on blog posts! And the book I have been meaning to review ever since I stayed up until 2 am finishing it a couple months or so ago is The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas.

The Hate U Give is one of the few books that I specifically asked for as a birthday present, but I probably would have done anything to get my hands on it anyway (well, anything within reason). It’s a completely captivating and searing story of an all-too-familiar narrative–that of a young, black, and unarmed boy shot by a white police officer, only to have his character put on trial rather than the cop’s, his name replaced with “drug dealer,” and his humanity assaulted in a way we all know a white boy’s never would have been. But The Hate U Give also tells a story that isn’t always as prominent: That of the one witness who was with this boy, Khalil, when he was shot–16 year old Starr Carter. She is the only one, other than the cop himself, who can tell what happened that night. But she is also afraid, not only for her own safety but for that of her family, as well.

Starr is no stranger to how an individual’s race and background affect how they are treated and how the world expects them to behave. As one of the few black students at a predominantly-white and wealthy private school, Starr is automatically cool because she is black, but is also appalled to hear her white classmates (such as one of her close friends) refer to Khalil simply as a “drug dealer” who was up to no good. At home in Garden Heights, however, she is “Big Mav’s daughter who works in the store,” one who feels comfortable using slang and doesn’t feel the pressure to make sure she never comes off as the “angry black girl.” But she’s also set apart from her peers–it’s hard to keep Garden Heights Starr and Williamson Starr completely separate.

It’s even harder to keep her two selves apart after Starr becomes the principal witness to Khalil’s death. All of a sudden she is a key player in a narrative so terribly similar to those she has read about on the internet and reblogged on her Tumblr. And the way Thomas tells Starr’s story is not only near-impossible to put down, but also a constant reminder of the systemic racism that still runs rampant in the U.S. today.

It doesn’t take very long to realize why The Hate U Give is one of the best books of the year. I was instantly drawn in by Starr’s first person narrative. Her voice is candid and so very much her own, masterfully expressing her conflicts, her fears, and how hard it is for her to be two different versions of herself depending on where she is. And then, after Khalil’s death, how hard it is for her to not only grieve one of her best friends, but to face the prospect of having to defend his humanity.

Starr’s character was without a doubt one of my favorite parts of the book. She is smart, clever, and honest, and it comes through on every single page. She is desperate to do something to get justice for Khalil, but at the same time is terrified of the consequences. She knows what race relations in America are like, and while she isn’t afraid to point them out to the reader, she struggles to make her non-black friends understand. Watching Starr’s growth throughout the book–as she copes with levels of grief and fear that no 16 year old should have to face, as she overcomes her trepidation and takes control of her own anger–is one of the most powerful aspects of reading The Hate U Give, and made me never want to put the book down.

But there are many other characters that I loved besides Starr, most of all her family. Her parents, her little brother, her step-brother Seven–all would go to the ends of the earth for Starr, and all are lovable in their own ways. Her dad is a former gang member who wants to help make Garden Heights better, while her mom wants desperately to make sure her kids are safe. Seven may sometimes play the role of the protective older brother too much for Starr’s taste, but his everlasting support for her made me love him. And her little brother, well, he’s the only one who doesn’t treat Starr a little differently after the shooting, and she loves him for it.

Another part of The Hate U Give that made me never want to put it down again was, of course, Angie Thomas’s writing itself. It is lively, cutting, and perfectly on-point, never feeling stiff or clunky. It seamlessly communicates everything Starr is feeling–her pain, her confusion, even her love for Fresh Prince, and it only makes the book more absorbing. And while the focus of the novel largely consists of police brutality, it touches on a myriad of other issues, too–cultural appropriation, microaggressions, supposedly “harmless” jokes that are really anything but. The writing and the language is a large part of what makes The Hate U Give feel so real and immediate, just as it should be, and it captures the urgency of the book’s story masterfully.

It is hard to describe how one feels after finishing The Hate U Give. It is not a fluffy, happy, uplifting read. It is not sending the message that progress will be easy, that the deaths of black people at the hands of police are isolated incidents, that things will change if we just root out the “few bad apples.” It sure has hell doesn’t coddle.

But it does end with the sense that progress is necessary. It is not a question of whether one is brave enough, or whether an unarmed black boy was a drug dealer or not. It is a question of when a hoodie will qualify as a piece of clothing rather than a reason to shoot, a toy gun as just that–a toy–rather than a reason to take the life of a 12 year old kid. No one knows when that time will be. Starr certainly doesn’t, as she points out at the end of the book. But as Starr learns to speak her truth throughout the novel, it becomes a call for others to speak their truths, as well, and for allies to amplify those voices as best they can. The Hate U Give can certainly make things feel hopeless at times. But it does not send the message that the situation itself is hopeless. Rather, it sends the message that the situation will improve, but only through extremely hard work and struggle. Through listening and allyship. Through making people’s voices heard.

And that, that right there, is part of what makes The Hate U Give so important.

Take care of yourselves, and enjoy the rest of the weekend. Hopefully I’ll be back with another post soon.

Nora

Another Brooklyn

  • Hello everyone! Senior year of high school is officially well underway (oh my goodness), and with it has come homework, thermos after thermos of tea, and lots of college talk (so much college talk). However, I am still trying to find time to read when I can, and one of my favorite recent reads by far has been Another Brooklyn, National Book Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson’s first adult novel in 20 years.

Another Brooklyn is told from the point of view of August, a young anthropologist who is swept into memories of her childhood in 1970s Brooklyn after an encounter with an old friend on the subway following her father’s funeral. However, it is not only the story of August’s childhood but also those of Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the girls she becomes so close with that they are almost like sisters, holding hands and linking arms as they confront the heartbreak and pain in each of their private lives. And it is all told in Woodson’s beautiful, twining prose, heartbreaking in its own evocative way.

One of the things that most caught my attention about the book is the way in which Woodson tells her characters’ stories–they are not straightforward, but winding, taking leaps from memory to memory with new details coming into the picture at any given time. She does not so much tell the story as reveal it, filling in the gaps of the girls’ lives little by little, making the plot turn and twist in a way that is not only extremely well done, but incredibly engrossing at the same time. It is one of the many things that made me want to never put the book down.

However, one of the other things that makes the book easy to get lost in is the characters. Woodson paints each of the girls with a vibrant, talented brush, making each one unique and flawed in her own right. They may be sisters, but each is also her own person, with her own life and troubles outside of August’s sphere. Woodson vividly brings to life the challenges and confusion that come with growing up in a world that seems increasingly complicated and dangerous, and the heartbreak that it so often brings.

But finally, my favorite thing about Another Brooklyn, and the reason I fell so deeply in love with it, was the writing. Woodson’s prose flows so smoothly and seamlessly, without ever being flowery or decorative, that it feels as if it isn’t prose at all, but poetry. It paints the lives of August and her girls in sharp clarity, putting things in such a way that it is beautiful to read but also true. Each word feels carefully chosen, never wasted, and they are put together in a way that makes each page and line bear its own emotional weight. It made me want to go on reading the book forever, if only for the sake of reading more of that fantastic writing.

Throughout the book, August’s most common refrain is “This is memory,” speaking to the lives and the childhoods whose stories Woodson tells. She captures days, months, and years in these pages, touching on pain, love, friendship, and the ways in which these can change over time. Another Brooklyn is captivating and heartbreaking, but arguably the most notable thing about it is the humanity it captures in just 170 pages. And that is one of the most wonderful things a book can do.

Hope you all have a great rest of the weekend, and that you get to read some amazing books like this one 🙂 I’m off to work on a little more homework and then to indulge in a brownie.

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “Because even though Sylvia, Angela, Gigi, and I came together like a jazz improv–half notes tentatively moving toward one another until the ensemble found its footing and the music felt like it had always been playing–we didn’t have jazz to know this was who we were. We had the Top 40 music of the 1970s trying to tell our story. It never quite figured us out.” —Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson

Four Favorite Comfort Reads

Hi everyone! So, I think it’s almost universally acknowledged that Summer 2016 hasn’t been the best it could be. I’ve almost given up even looking at news that isn’t books- or Nationals-related, and I’m seriously considering living under a rock until at least the end of November. 2016 hasn’t been very kind to the world so far.

It’s time like these when I often just want something fun to read–still good, still incredibly well-written, but the kind of book I can just fall into and hopefully come out of feeling a little better. Books for when the real world just doesn’t seem so inviting (although they still pack quite the emotional punch). And so, without further ado, here are four of my favorite comfort reads, the ones I want to turn to again and again.

1. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a book that I loved so much the first go-round that I had to resist the urge to just reread it right away as soon as I was done. Lara Jean’s world of love letters, romance, and cookie-baking drew me in right away, and watching her banter with her sort-of-boyfriend-sort-of-not Peter K only makes it more fun. It features sisterly love in a way that I couldn’t get enough of, and the sequel, P.S. I Still Love You, is just as good. It’s a wonderful read to just fall into and enjoy, especially when the front page of the New York Times seems like a bit too much. But be warned: There’s a strong chance it could inspire you to bake to excess, so handle with caution.

2. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley

Many of the books (and shows, and movies) I most like to dive into when I need to take my mind off of things are mysteries. I love the challenge and plot-twists of figuring out who did what, especially when it draws me into a whole new world. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and its sequels have an added advantage in that they also feature Flavia de Luce, arguably my favorite protagonist of any mystery ever. She’s eleven, an extremely skilled chemist with a strong interest in poisons, and precocious as all get-out to boot. I absolutely adore her, and watching her track down the story behind the dead man she finds in the garden of her English estate completely captivated me. It’s a great series to just get swept up in, poisons, murders, and all.

3. Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce

However, as much as I love mysteries, there’s always going to be a special place in my heart reserved solely for fantasies (or just Tamora Pierce, to be honest). Many of my first favorite books were fantasies, and one of my first loves of that genre was  Alanna: The First Adventure, the first book in the Song of the Lioness series. Tamora Pierce spins magic and mayhem out of words, and while the books certainly have their fair share of loss and sadness, reading them, to me, always feels a little like coming home. It comes complete with plot twists and sword fights and romance, not to mention all the magic! (And the completely unabashed feminism, hallelujah.) I’m not sure that I could actually think of a fantasy I’d recommend more, although Ella Enchanted is certainly in the running. In any case, if I ever need to distract myself from the rest of the world for awhile, Alanna is one of the first things that pops into my head.

4. Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

It took me ages to finally get around to reading Anna and the French Kiss, but I fell in love with it in a way that makes me want to return to it whenever I need to forget about stuff and just spend some quality time with a really good book. Anna’s story of transferring to a high school all the way across the Atlantic, becoming best friends with history-obsessed Étienne St. Clair, and trying to navigate the murky waters of friendship and love totally sucked me in, and then refused to let go. I fell in love with hilarious, film-loving Anna, and all of the other characters felt just as real and genuine. And the setting only makes diving into Anna’s world more fun–I could have happily read about her adventures in Paris for days.

I love books like these because they have the power to pull you into another world completely, spinning you away into these fun, exciting stories when the real world is just a bit too much. They are full of excellent plots, well-written characters, and magic both figurative and literal, and I loved falling into each and every one of them. The world kinda sucks sometimes, but at least there are books like these to help us along. Also chocolate 🙂

Hope you all have a great rest of the weekend, and take care!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “Keep reading. It’s one of the most marvelous adventures that anyone can have.” –Lloyd Alexander

Skim

Hey everyone! Hope you all have had a lovely weekend, full of tea and sunshine and binge-watching clips of The Late Show (or is that just me?). Today’s book is Skim, by the amazing due of Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, and a wonderful graphic novel at that.

“Skim” is actually Kimberly Keiko Cameron, a young high schooler who goes to an all-girls school in Canada and is a lover of Wicca, tarot cards, and astrology. Skim’s school is all of a sudden thrown into turmoil as news spreads of the suicide of Katie Matthews’s ex-boyfriend, leading to the creation of a “Girls Celebrate Life” club, as Skim herself is falling into a deep depression as she contemplates questions of friendship, love, and sexuality.

As readers, we’re sort of dropped into the middle of Skim’s life–we get to watch as she grows and changes and begins to delve into deeper questions about herself, until the book ends and we step out of that little glimpse. But that glimpse itself is extremely well done–Mariko Tamaki writes from the point of view of Skim writing in her diary, allowing us to see many of her private thoughts, but also leaving many things unsaid. Skim’s voice sounds authentic, and, while not always stating things directly, still conveys what she’s feeling very well, especially as she deals with trying to figure out what love is and how to know when you’re in it. It’s amazing how we can still feel the turmoil and pain going on inside her mind, both the confusion of love and the deepness of depression, and it’s one of the things I most enjoyed while reading.

The other characters–Skim’s friends, her classmates, and even her parents–are portrayed with similar clarity. While we of course don’t get as close a look at their inner thoughts as we do at Skim’s, we still get a sense of how they’re feeling about what’s going on around them, especially through their expressions and body language. It makes them feel more real and human, and only makes it harder to put the book down and leave their world.

Which brings me to one of the things that I most loved about this book–the seamless way in which the words and illustrations work together to tell this small part of Skim’s story. Jillian Tamaki’s drawings are beautiful and striking, black and white and intricately detailed in a way that I kept marveling at as I read. There were so many moments when I just wanted to sit back and look at the pictures, because they’re so well done and they flow with the words in a way that’s almost magical. The placement of the prose and the way the words sit on the page often gives them added weight, pausing at all the right places to give the reader a chance to consider what Skim is saying. It only brought me deeper into Skim’s life, and made me feel as if I could really see her surroundings and what her world was like. It’s one of the things that most made me never want to put the book back down.

Skim only provides us with a small look into one girl’s life, but it’s one that I so enjoyed falling into. Skim, her school, and her world feel so authentic and real that I closed the pages feeling as though they must actually exist, and that somewhere out there Skim was continuing to go about her day, figuring out who she is and reading book after book about Wicca. It’s a great read, and perfect for a rainy afternoon to boot 🙂

Hope you all have a lovely Monday, and stay cool!

–Nora

Quote of the Day: “I feel like I have wings but my bones are bricks. Because…because…because…” —Skim, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki

My Favorite Books of 2015

Oh my god, it’s winter break. So much sleep. So much reading. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Now that the year is drawing to a close, it seems only right to tally up some of the best books I read this year and decide which ones were my absolute favorites, and oh my goodness were there some really amazing ones. To make it a little bit easier, I’ve split them up by genre this time around.

Fantasy

I really gravitated towards contemporaries this year, meaning that I also really stepped back from fantasy for awhile, which is a little strange considering fantasy books are a large part of what made me fall in love with reading and start this blog in the first place. (Hence the first review being about The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale.) But that does not at all mean that I don’t still adore great fantasy books, and oh my god were there some fantastic ones.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa TahirAn Ember in the Ashes

An Ember in the Ashes was the first fantasy I read after a looong stretch of mostly reading contemporaries, and it was the best re-introduction into the genre I could have asked for. This story of two very different characters living under the rule of the brutal Martial Empire–Laia, a slave girl, and Elias, an extremely accomplished soldier–is absolutely captivating, filled with complex characters and a plot that makes you feel like you’re constantly holding your breath as you turn the pages. There’s magic, an amazing setting, and some of the highest stakes I’ve ever read about, and it is fantastic. This is the kind of book I want to throw into people’s faces just so they’ll read it and can freak out about it with me. Especially Helene, because oh my god Helene. (I also went to a book event featuring Ms. Tahir at Politics and Prose in D.C., and she is absolutely lovely, not to mention hilarious.) (Full review here.)

The Wrath and the DawnThe Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn is another fantasy that grabbed me, pulled me in, and refused to let go. Renée Ahdieh’s retelling of One Thousand and One Nights is so full of talent and skill that it still makes my head spin, and its story of Shahrzad and Khalid swept me up and made it near-impossible to put the book down for even a second. Shahrzad and Khalid are both so amazing and complex, not to mention all the other characters, and I fell in love with them so completely that I think I’m still recovering. Ahdieh’s writing is downright gorgeous, and she paints the world of Khorasan so masterfully that it only absorbed me even more. I loved so many things about this book–the plot, the characters, and especially the friendship between Shahrzad and her handmaiden Despina, because yes to awesome female friendship in books. Not to mention the romance, which made me fall in love so completely that it’s arguably the best ship I read about all year. This book made me forget lunch, guys. It’s so good. (Full review here.)

White is for Witching by Helen OyeyemiWhite is for Witching 2

White is for Witching is the most recent fantasy I read, and it’s also one of the most interesting things I picked up all year, nightmares and fairy tales mixed with the very real dangers of the world into a captivating cocktail. Helen Oyeyemi’s tale about Miranda Silver, and the lives of the Silver women who came before her, is something like labyrinth, weaving together what is real and what is not, what is light and what is dark, and and what the reader can and cannot trust. She writes in a way that draws the reader in and then doesn’t let them go, and uses the magic and darkness of her story to also touch on the very real issues of our world. Miranda and the other characters are drawn in a way that makes them feel real and human, despite the supernatural voices that haunt their lives, and the narration is done in such an interesting way that I was caught almost from the beginning. It’s the kind of story that you just can’t look away from, and I loved being swept up in it. (Full review here.)

Contemporary

This year led to me realizing that contemporary is one of my favorite genres in pretty much ever–I love reading about characters in high school, going to work, carrying out their lives in the very same times we live in. While there likely isn’t going to be any pixie dust or dragons, contemporaries can have some amazing stories, and falling headlong into some of them this year led to a lot of great discoveries.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao 2The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

If I had to name one book I read this year that was closest to my favorite, it would be The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. I’d been meaning to read this book for ages, and when I received it as a present at the start of the summer, it wasn’t long before I finally tried it. Junot Díaz writes in a way that I fell in love with, and I adored learning about Oscar’s life and those of the people around him, especially the unnamed narrator that we finally meet more than halfway through the book. He narrates in a voice that draws the reader in and makes it incredibly hard to escape, and the characters are all so human and flawed that by the end I felt as if I really knew them. The plot covers generations of Oscar’s family, taking the reader from his home in New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and back again, and it’s filled with conflict, romance, and tons and tons of stories. I loved it so much that I bought the short story collections Drown and This Is How You Lose Her right afterward, which were just as amazing, and my only regret is that I sped through them so quickly that now I don’t have anything else new from Díaz to read. Let the rereading commence.

Purple Hibiscus 2Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus is another contemporary I read this year that I became completely absorbed in and absolutely loved. I’d never read anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before, and her first novel was more than enough to convince me to read anything else by her that I can get my hands on. Purple Hibiscus focuses on the lives of Kambili and Jaja, two children living in the household of their fanatically religious father, and Adichie tells the story of their growth and education (particularly while visiting their aunt’s family in Nsukka) in a way that makes it all seem so real and vibrant that I was totally drawn in. She paints the picture of Kambili’s family’s lives in a way that makes the reader feel as if they actually know them, and each of the characters is incredibly real, with their own complex emotions and desires. I loved getting to read about all their conflicts, both internal and external, and part of me wishes that the book had gone on much longer just so I could have read more.

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeTo All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of the many great books of 2014 that I missed out on, but I absolutely adored falling into it this past spring. The story of Lara Jean Song and her hidden (and then not-so-hidden) love letters totally drew me in, full of cookie-baking, fake dating, and sisterly love. I loved getting to know these characters, especially Lara Jean and Peter K, and it was so much fun to see the way they bounced off each other and interacted. Han’s writing and Lara Jean’s narration was as addicting as the cookies Lara Jean bakes, and I loved reading about her family’s interactions and her friendship with her sisters. This is the kind of book that I started reading and just couldn’t stop, and when everything was mixed together–the characters, the details, the romance–it made my little reader heart so very happy 🙂 Not to mention more than a little hungry.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih AlameddineAn Unnecssary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman follows a plot that is just about as far away from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before as possible, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it just as much. Rabih Alameddine’s story of a 72-year-old woman working as a translator in her book-filled apartment in modern Beirut was incredibly hard to put down, especially because of the amazing narration of Aaliya, the main character. Aaliya’s voice is one that I fell completely in love with, telling her own stories and those of other characters in a way that made her almost irresistible. She has the best way of putting things, full of wry and cutting remarks, and describes them in a way that made my weakness for amazing descriptions all the more apparent. She paints a picture of Beirut that made it seem so real I could almost reach out and touch it, a city wracked by the Lebanese Civil War and home to everything she loves. I loved seeing everything through Aaliya’s eyes, and the other characters were just as much fun to read about, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic, and always interesting. What made it even better was Aaliya’s deep and abiding love of books, written in a way that made it seem as if it was almost a living thing, radiating from the pages. It’s yet another one of my weaknesses, and for that I adored the book all the more.

Historical Fiction

When I came to this category, I realized that I read very little historical fiction this year, which is a definite lamentable fact. Historical fiction can be so extremely well done (see: Ann Rinaldi), and I’m not entirely sure how I ended up reading so little of it these past 12 months. Hopefully I’ll get to some really amazing reads in 2016, but for now, there is one book that totally bowled me over in a way that only the best books can.

The Valley of AmazementThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I finished The Valley of Amazement about two days ago, and I think a part of me is still reeling. It’s the first Amy Tan book I’ve ever read (I know I’m disappointed too), and after finishing it late at night it took me forever to finally fall asleep, because oh my god feelings everywhere. Tan tells the story of Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai during the early 20th century. But when a web of lies ends with Violet being forced to become a virgin courtesan, it sends her on an entirely different track in life, one that Tan captures with so much mastery it left me wondering what to do with myself after I was finished. Tan’s writing is amazing, and the story of Violet’s life, interspersed with those of the myriad of other characters, made it near-impossible to put the book down. Each of the characters is original and flawed, and by the end I felt as if they had actually existed, wondering what happened to them after the pages were closed. The writing itself only drew me in more, capturing the expansiveness of the story and switching capably between different points of view. It tackles feelings of love, hate, and abandonment, and I loved it so much that my only problem now is moving on from it and picking which of Tan’s books to read next.

Nonfiction

Like historical fiction, nonfiction is not a genre that I focused on very much this year, despite my newfound love of historical musicals about Alexander Hamilton (seriously, don’t get me started because I could ramble on about Hamilton for literally hours without pausing) (>resists the urge to start singing<). But of course, there is one book that stands out as one of my favorite nonfiction books of the year, and also ever.

March: Book Two by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate March--Book TwoPowell

I adored the first book in Congressman John Lewis’s March series for many reasons–the illustrations, how vibrantly it tells the story of his childhood, the look it gives into the Civil Rights Movement. And I was just as captivated by March: Book Two, if not more so. It’s true that it’s very different from the first book–it’s more violent, more mature, and it gives a much deeper look into the people of the movement and the challenges they faced. Lewis writes unapologetically about these challenges, describing in detail the vicious brutality with which the protests were met, as well as the conflict within the movement itself. Powell’s illustrations only make the book more absorbing and striking, stark black-and-white images accompanying each of Lewis’s words. It brings the racism and brutal history of our country–one built on the genocide and exploitation of black people–to terrifying life, in a way that made me more furious than any other book this year. It’s the kind of book that I want everyone to read, especially in times when the racism of the United States is still alive and well and affecting people in a million ways. It tells a story that’s wholly human and that needs to be told, and if there’s one book people read from this list, I hope it’s this one. (Full review here.)

And that’s about it for my favorite books of 2015. I’m hoping I’ll find myself reading many more in the next year, and hopefully (>crosses fingers<) writing about them as much as I can. It’s true that I didn’t read as much as I would have liked to this year, but many of the books I did get to were absolutely fantastic, and I can’t recommend them enough. And now I’m going to go make Christmas cookies, because it doesn’t need to be the actual holiday to use copious amounts of decorative sugar.

Hope you all are having a wonderful holiday season, and Happy New Year!

–Nora

P.S. I feel like it says something that the little blurbs I write for books are now just about as long as the first reviews on the blog. A master of brevity I am not.

Belzhar

Hi everyone! February is slowly but surely drawing to a close, and I am just waiting for it to be March. Or, more accurately, for it to be spring. Green leaves! Longer days! Sunshine! Warmth.

>ahem<

Anyway, as you can probably see, the book of the day is Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer, which I have been looking forward to reading for quite some time (not least of all because of that cool cover).

Belzhar tells the story of Jam Gallahue, a girl who, for a while, had a pretty good life. She had friends, did fairly well in school, etc. But then her boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield, dies. And Jam falls apart.

At a loss as to what to do, Jam’s parents finally send her to the Wooden Barn, a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teens. There, Jam is placed in a class called Special Topics in English, where she is one of only five students and they read only one writer for the whole semester. This semester, that writer is Sylvia Plath. As the students delve deeper into Plath’s writing, and begin keeping journals as part of the class, they’re transported to a world where each of them can regain what they have lost. They decide to call this world “Belzhar.” Only, what happens when the journals fill up?

There are so many good things about Belzhar. The characters were unique and compelling, and I especially loved the other kids in Jam’s class, like Marc and Casey. The plot was interesting, and the writing is great. I really liked how real Wolitzer made Jam’s feelings, from her love for Reeve to her grief after his death. This book gets intense, but Wolitzer manages that very well, and I was so invested in what was going on.

And then there was the plot twist.

Usually, I’m a pretty big fan of plot twists–I love when a book just completely blindsides you and smacks you with something you never saw coming, something that changes everything and makes the book even better. And while I was certainly blindsided by the plot twist in Belzhar, I was mostly left asking one question: “Why???”

I liked Belzhar so much up until that point, but after that one part, I just couldn’t like it in the same way, nor could I like Jam. The frustrating thing is that the plot twist felt so needless, and I couldn’t understand why it was there. It turned everything completely on its head, but the book was excellent without that. Jam’s struggles were immediately much less compelling, as was her character. I honestly thought I must have read something wrong, because it didn’t make any sense to me.

For a good part of the book, Belzhar is excellent. The characters are real, the plot is good, and I enjoyed the way Wolitzer wove Sylvia Plath’s writing into her characters’ lives. I feel like I can’t classify the book as either good or bad, because it’s almost like two separate stories in one–one of which I loved, one of which frustrated me to absolutely no end.

For now, though, rather than agonize over my severely mixed feelings, I think I’m going to get a cup of cocoa and mess around on the Internet. Because why not?

Stay warm everybody!

Bookish Quote of the Day: “I was sent here because of a boy. His name was Reeve Maxfield, and I loved him and then he died, and almost a year passed and no one knew what to do with me.” –Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer