Review: A Million Junes

“Two families.

Two Ghosts–one warm and sad, one cold and hungry.

Two tears in our world–one at an impossible tree and one in a starlit pool.

One curse, tying the puzzle together, and infinite memories holding the answer to what created the hungry darkness, the brutal cycle that will eventually swallow Saul or me.”

I love Book of the Month Club. I have been a member for over a year now, and though I have received some duds, I have also discovered surprising treasures that I may have never tried otherwise. A Million Junes by Emily Henry is one of those.

junesAs I was choosing my June BOTM pick, I saw several that I had heard quite a bit about, and I was interested in them.  Then, I saw the cover for A Million Junes, a novel that I had not heard of before. I promise I don’t always judge books by their covers, but this cover is stunning (seriously, that cover).  When I read the description, I thought it would be a lighthearted, fun, fantastical read perfect for summer. I wasn’t wrong. But, this book was so much more than I expected. I wasn’t prepared for my reaction. I never wanted A Million Junes to end. Continue reading

Review: Ramona Blue

I read Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy a few weeks ago when it was released, and though I  planned to write a review immediately,  I had to take some time to process my feelings on this one. The controversy surrounding the novel was drowning out my initial reaction upon finishing it. Now that I have had time to distance myself from the novel and the buzz of the book world, I feel I can write an objective review.  My initial reaction was positive. I loved the story, the characters, and setting, and I thought the depiction of poverty, families, and responsibilities was accurate.

ramona blueThe story is set post-Katrina in Eulogy, Mississippi, a small Gulf Coast community devastated after the storm over ten years ago. In this conservative, southern town, Ramona Blue stands out. Standing at 6 foot and 3 inches tall with bright blue hair, Ramona is a seventeen year old girl and one of two lesbians in her small town. After Hurricane Katrina, Ramona’s family lost their family home and moved into a small trailer, where they live for the next decade. Ramona struggles with her responsibilities to her family, working two jobs to help ends meet for her father and pregnant sister, all while attending school. In an ever shrinking town, and even smaller home, Ramona faces up to what her future holds. Or rather, what doesn’t seem possible.  The one thing Ramona knows is who she is. She is a hard worker, a good friend, a beloved sister, and a responsible person. And, she knows she likes girls. Then, her childhood friend, Freddie, returns to Eulogy. At first, Ramona finds comfort in her renewed friendship with Freddie and her rediscovery of her love for swimming. But, her feelings for Freddie challenge everything Ramona knows about herself and her place in the world.

Though the novel felt overly long at times, Ramona and her friends are endearing characters, and Julie Murphy doesn’t shy away from difficult topics. The novel explores issues of identity, sexuality, teenage pregnancy, class, poverty, and race. What could  easily have become a checklist of hot button issues used to sell books felt authentic as I read. Ramona’s first-person narration allows the reader to see the world through her eyes, and because we see Ramona make sense of her experiences, they feel more genuine. For instance, when Ramona and her friends decide to take a swim in someone’s pool and are caught, most of them think it’s funny. Just teenage hijinks. But, Ramona discovers that for Freddie, it isn’t as simple as that. We see Ramona come to realize the ways in which Freddie’s black body is policed and how such “hijinks” could have very different consequences for a person of color.

The book, despite its diversity, has received a number of 1-star ratings on Goodreads, and many of them for the blurb on the jacket cover alone. And since the novel’s release, many have taken to blogs and magazines to debate whether the novel is lesbophobic or not. The problem many people have with Ramona Blue is that it seems to be yet another story about a lesbian who goes straight once she meets the right guy. We’ve all seen those movies and read those books. And there are too many of them using this trope. However, I honestly don’t believe Ramona Blue is one of them.

First, Ramona struggles with her feelings for Freddie, and she feels guilty, ashamed, and confused. Throughout the novel, Ramona has confidence in who she is and how she identifies herself, but when Freddie comes along, she doesn’t know how to make sense of feelings or her identity anymore.

“If I’m being honest with myself, there’s a small part of me that is sad every time I kiss Freddie, because I feel like little by little the person I thought I was is disappearing. Almost like I’ve lost what makes me special. “

Rather, I felt the novel examined the complexities of identity and sexuality in a way that I don’t see often enough.

Second, though Freddie and Ramona develop feelings for one another, the novel is not a romantic one. In other words, that is not the focus. Instead, the novel’s main storyline–as I see it–is one about a girl who feels confined by her town, her family, her circumstances, and even labels. It’s a novel about a girl coming to terms with feeling like she doesn’t fit and is bursting at the seams–figuratively and literally.

And this is where I think the novel is most successful. I identified strongly with Ramona Blue’s depiction of poverty, of the working class, and family. Ramona is a teenage girl, working two jobs and going to school, to help provide for her family. Though she dreams of getting out of her small town and going to college, she feels a responsibility to her father and her pregnant teen-aged sister, who is not ready to be a mother and has a dead-beat boyfriend.

When movies and books depict poverty, what they often miss is the way that poverty affects people’s familial relationships and sense of responsibilities. People don’t talk about the fact that people living in poverty will often feel that it is their responsibility to sacrifice their dreams and aspirations in order to take care of family or problems that really aren’t theirs to take care of. I don’t mean the way that we all feel a responsibility to care for our families. It is stronger than that. I have seen it in my own life and in the lives of my students.

With poverty also comes the responsibility of figuring things out and making things happen when there doesn’t seem a way. When you live in poverty, you develop an understanding that, sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Not in the way that it does for other people, at least. In one scene, Ramona is anxious about what the future holds, especially for her sister and the baby. As she tries to figure out how she can help without sacrificing everything she wants, she has a conversation with her father:

“It’ll work out,” he says. “Always does.”

He says that, but sometimes it doesn’t work out. Sometimes you’ve gotta make it work out, and I think that’s what my dad never quite got. That’s why we are still living in the same deteriorating trailer that was only ever meant to be a temporary fix.

Anyone who knows me will tell you to never say, “It’ll work out,” to me. My response will be Ramona’s.

What I most appreciated about the novel is the end. Ramona realizes that she is not as confined as she thought, but she doesn’t magically win a scholarship to a big university or move to a large city. Rather, the ending is more realistic than that. Some things work out (because people make them work out) and others don’t.

So, is the novel without problems? No. But, I found it delightful and absolutely think its worth reading and talking about.

Thoughts on Bravery and YA Protagonists

Recently, I read two YA novels that I continue to think about and that I recommend to anyone who hasn’t read them yet. Good YA literature often tackles difficult subjects in thought-provoking and fresh ways. The Hate U Give and An Ember in the Ashes do just that. Though very different, these two novels surprisingly share common themes and one problematic issue that has stuck with me. Continue reading

Review: The Fifth Petal

I tend to have pretty strong reactions to books. I love them–or at least love parts of them. Or, I hate them and, therefore, bail. I think one of the reasons for my reactions is that I honestly only read books if I’m in the mood for them. It is, therefore, a rare occasion that I read a book that I want to love, that has me intrigued, but at the end, my reaction isn’t that strong. That’s how I feel about Brunonia Barry’s newest novel, The Fifth PetalContinue reading

The Bear and the Nightingale: A Review

Anyone who knows me also knows my love of fairy tales. However, I know a lot about fairy tales and haven’t encountered an unfamiliar telling since reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik a couple of years ago. Until, I discovered Katherine Arden’s debut,  The Bear and the Nightingale.

bearandthenightingale_ecards_v2-2The Bear and the Nightingale takes readers on a thrilling journey to a northern village in medieval Russia where religion and magic coexist and where the long winters are cruel. When Pyotr’s wife, Marina, dies in childbirth, he tries for years to raise his children alone, including his last-born daughter. Vasya is a wild, strong-willed, “unmaidenly” girl with “fae green eyes” and the abilities of her grandmother to see magic all around her.  Continue reading

The Strays by Emily Bitto: A Review

I believe in supporting emerging literary voices, so in 2016, I vowed to read more debut novels. I read many, and some were my favorite books of the year. Emily Bitto’s The Strays was one such book. I read the book in the Fall of 2016, but The Strays only became available to readers in the U.S. yesterday, January 3, 2017 (hence, I didn’t include it in my 2016 list of books).

the-straysIn 2015, debut novelist, Emily Bitto, received the Stella Award, a book award that recognizes Australian women writers of fiction and nonfiction and the second major literary award in Australia.

Her debut, The Strays, is story of friendship, an avant-garde artists’ colony, a band of bohemian artists, and secrets that bind or break relationships. The novel is framed as a memoir. In 1985, Lily reflects on one of her most influential childhood friendships and her experiences living with the eccentric Trentham family in the 1930s.

Lily and Eva meet  when they are eight years old, though they come from very different worlds. Lily, a child of middle-class suburban parents, lives a relatively “normal” and sedate life, a life filled with routine and order. Eva, the child of two wealthy, bohemian parents lives in a world of beauty, chaos, and passion. For Lily, her attraction to  Eva and the Trentham family is immediate and profound. It is this attraction that Lily describes in the opening of the book:  Continue reading

A Year End Review: Books

I will get caught up. I will get caught up. I will get caught up.

That has been my mantra this year. I never seemed to get caught up, however. In my last post (in October! gasp!), I mentioned some of the busyness and teaching difficulties I was dealing with. Just when things seemed to be settling down at the beginning of November, I was asked to take over an ENG 102 class when the instructor had to take a leave of absence. With only six weeks left, I had to teach a crash course in research writing to a group of tired and overwhelmed students. We all survived (and some really good things came out of the class), but my blogging, reading, and writing came to a halt. Now that I can breathe a little, I decided a good place to start back would be with a year end review of my favorite books this year.

Before I begin, I need to provide a few caveats.

  • I have a love/hate relationship with end-of-the-year lists. I love to read them, to see what books other readers enjoyed, to affirm my own loves of the year, and to add to my ever-growing TBR. But, I also hate when books are overlooked, and I find it so difficult to come up with a list.
  • I don’t read books that I don’t enjoy. If I don’t like it, I stop reading (there will be a post about this in 2017). The result is that my list of books at the end of the year is a list of books I loved–or at least liked–which makes narrowing the list really difficult.
  • I challenged myself this year to read more diversely. I wanted to expand the genres I read, the authors I read, the places, experiences,  and cultures represented in the books I read. In some areas, I succeeded. I read more creative nonfiction and debut novels (categories severely lacking in my previous reading lists). In others, I still need more work.
  • Although I still don’t feel like it’s enough, I read more this year than I have the last three years. I’ve enjoyed something about every book that I read. The books that follow, though, are ones that have stuck with me the most.

Continue reading

The Long, Long Life of Trees: A Review

I’ve always had a thing for trees. I spent much of my childhood in the country, and many of my favorite memories involve the trees that watched as I grew. I climbed trees. I hid in natural forts made from closely-growing trees whose bowing canopy I imagined to be a cave designed just for me. I sat on a swing tied to a branch of a large pecan tree and spent hours reading or making up stories.

When I was a teenager, I took a trip to New Mexico with a group from my church. Others in the group were awed by the canyons, the desert, and the expansive sky. I enjoyed seeing these things, but I missed trees. As we drove back across the country and drew nearer to home, the number of trees lining the roads increased.  I squealed with delight to see the varying shades of green and brown, earthy colors that made me feel connected again to the world around me. Continue reading

The Wolf Road: A Review

“A good knife is hard to come by, about as hard as finding a good person in this damned country. When your life is your only currency and you got debts to pay, a good knife can make all the difference.”

One of my reading goals this year was to read more debut novels, and I’ve read several. The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis was one such novel that I had added to my TBR almost a year before it was released in July. But, where The Wolf Road differs from the other debuts I’ve read is that this novel doesn’t read like a debut. This is a stunning novel written by a skillful writer and storyteller.  Continue reading

Snow White: A Review

I received my first copy of Grimm’s fairy tales before I was old enough to read. Almost every day I  leafed through the gilt-edged pages looking only  at the beautiful, painted illustrations and telling stories to myself. That book began my love affair with fairy tales in all of their forms.

Because my first encounter with fairy tales was through images, it seems quite fitting that my most recent experience would be similar.

Matt Phelan’s graphic novel, Snow White, will be published by Penguin Random House on September 13, 2016.  Matt Phelan is an illustrator and writer who has been nominated for two Eisner Awards and who has won the prestigious Newberry Medal and Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

snow whiteA beautiful retelling of a classic fairy tale, Matt Phelan’s Snow White is set in depression-era NYC. He remains faithful to the classic, literary versions of the tale (namely that of the Grimm Brothers) while adapting the story in a way that is moving and unique in 1920s New York.  Continue reading