Book Review: Turtles All the Way Down

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Green, John. Turtles All The Way Down. Dutton Books, 2017.

To say I am a fan of John Green would be a tremendous understatement. Not only are his books fantastic and popular with my students and co-workers, his Crash Course videos make frequent appearances in my instruction. I am a proud Nerdfigher and have attended two conferences spearheaded by the Green Brothers—VidCon and NerdCon Stories. There’s a Nerdfighter flag draped across the wall of my classroom, a Nerdfighter enamel pin affixed to my tote bag. I like to hear John’s views on everything from politics and religion to whether pineapple belongs on pizza.

So, like other YA fans, I was aflutter with excitement when John announced his forthcoming novel, Turtles All The Way Down. I pre-ordered an autographed copy and waited with bated breath.

I can happily report that Turtles All The Way Down was certainly worth the wait.

Aza Holmes lives with debilitating anxiety, worrying endlessly about bacteria and contagious diseases. It’s a fear that has resulted in a variety of rituals—Aza habitually presses her thumbnail into her middle finger, creating a callus that she must continually douse with hand sanitizer and rebandage. Thoughts of microbes and fatal bacteria often cause her thoughts to spiral, and she’s rarely mentally present when spending time with her mom or best friend, Daisy.

It is during one of these obsessive thought spirals that Aza hears about the disappearance of Russell Pickett, a billionaire on the lam. Russell’s son, Davis, was one of Aza’s childhood friends. After some brash encouragement from Daisy, Aza seeks out Davis, and the two reconnect. As Aza and Daisy piece together scant clues from Russell’s disappearance, Aza struggles with her feelings for Davis and the constant, nagging presence of her phobias. Will she learn to regularly take her medication? Will her mental illness interfere with her burgeoning relationship? Will anyone uncover Russell Pickett’s location?

I’d sorely missed John Green’s writing style, and starting Turtles All The Way Down was a breath of fresh air. The language is smart, the characters varied and complicated. There were great moments of humor and the painful scenes were genuine and raw. John Green does a fantastic job writing Aza’s obsessive thoughts, allowing the text to tighten on the reader in the same way that Aza’s fears close around her. Aza’s relationships—both romantic and platonic—are refreshingly real. There are no neat happily-ever-afters, making this an accurate depiction of mental illness.

There is little to dislike in Green’s newest novel. The number of conflicts and plot points can almost feel overwhelming, but this perhaps speaks to Aza’s mental state.

Like all of Green’s novels, Turtles All The Way Down will be an essential addition to a high school classroom library. Students who are dealing with anxiety or loss will find it especially relatable. Overall, Turtles All The Way Down is a fantastic read from an author who contributes a great deal to teenagers, educators, and the world at large. What’s not to love?

Book Review: The Future of Us

the future of us

Asher, Jay, and Carolyn Mackler. The Future of Us. Simon & Schuster Books, 2011.

I wouldn’t call myself a shopaholic, but there are a few items I will purchase somewhat impulsively: donuts, office supplies, and gently used bargain books. I especially enjoy stocking up on cheap YA paperbacks before school starts, trying to make my shelves look as full and varied as possible.

It’s easy, then, to forget individual purchases. I was perusing my shelves before summer break and discovered a copy of Jay Asher and Carolyn Mackler’s The Future of Us. As Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why has become a Netflix sensation and a popular read among my students, I was surprised that I never tackled The Future of Us. Recently, I decided to remedy that.

In the time of dial-up internet and the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal, Josh and Emma are neighbors and best friends. The relationship is on the cusp of blossoming into something more, but frightened Emma puts an immediate stop to it. Amid the awkwardness that follows, Josh brings Emma a copy of AOL to install on her new computer. As Emma gets to work creating her first e-mail address and setting up instant messenger, she discovers an interesting website. Called Facebook, the website contains photos and strange, stream-of-consciousness statements from a woman in her mid-thirties. Emma is startled to discover that the woman is her in the future, seemingly unhappily married to a stranger.

Puzzled and frightened of a computer virus, Emma invites Josh over to examine Facebook. They find an account for Josh as well, and are in shock as he seems to be married to one of the most attractive and popular girls in school. While Josh is desperate for his future to pan out just as Facebook says it will, Emma is determined to change the present, creating ripple effects that will give her the happy life she wants. How will Emma’s actions impact both their futures? Will Josh work up the courage to speak to his future wife? And will Josh and Emma ever resolve their feelings for one another?

Older readers will smile at the bits of nostalgia found in Asher and Mackler’s novel: the necessity of logging off the internet when another household member needs to use the phone, and the use of Walkmans, cassette tapes, pagers, and pay phones. The premise, too, is intriguing. Who could resist catching a glimpse of their future, especially if they knew they could change it?

Although I was certainly drawn in to The Future of Us, I found Josh and Emma’s relationship problematic. Emma spurned Josh’s affections until other girls began to find him interesting, making Emma something of an unsympathetic character. It would be difficult, too, to maintain the timeliness and relevancy of the book. Although students are still familiar with and use Facebook, social media is constantly changing and evolving.

The idea of the butterfly effect—found in time travel fiction and related to the decisions human beings make every day—has been a topic of conversation in my classroom this year. I could see excerpts from this novel strengthening my students’ understanding of the concept and encouraging them to think more seriously about the many ways their present impacts their future.

Book Review: Wonder Woman: Warbringer

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Bardugo, Leigh. Wonder Woman: Warbringer. New York, Random House, 2017.

After seeing the Wonder Woman movie in theaters, I immediately returned home and posted my thoughts to Facebook: “Wow. We do not deserve Wonder Woman.”

I was blown away by Gal Gadot’s flawless performance and Wonder Woman’s penchant for peace. I was excited for the little girls who saw the movie wearing capes and carrying their own lassos of truth. And, most importantly, I was energized by the positive press surrounding an action movie with a female lead.

I was powerless, then, to Leigh Bardugo’s newest release: a YA Wonder Woman novelization.

Wonder Woman: Warbringer follows teenaged Diana, who is considered a runt and weakling among the Amazons on her home island of Themyscira. The daughter of the queen Hippolyta, Diana sees a foot race as an opportunity to prove herself and make her mother proud. After the race begins, however, Diana hears unnerving screams. A ship has wrecked just outside the wards of mystical Themyscira, and a young girl—the ship’s sole survivor—is quickly drowning in the choppy water. Diana decides to forfeit the race and bring the girl, Alia, to safety, even though Amazons and mortals are forbidden to mix.

Alia’s presence has an adverse effect on the island—earthquakes rattle Themyscira, and Diana’s best friend becomes violently ill. Desperate and guilty, Diana seeks the guidance of Themyscira’s Oracle. The Oracle says that Alia is a “Warbringer”—the latest descendent in a long line of women who bring strife and warfare to the mortal world. The Oracle advises Diana to let Alia die, but brave Diana can’t bear the thought of Alia’s suffering. She makes the decision, then, to return Alia to the world of man. Will Diana ever return to Themyscira? Will she be shunned in the modern world? Will Alia continue to cause conflict and chaos with her mere presence?

Fans of the movie will be just as enraptured with Bardugo’s novel. Diana’s super strength and endurance, literal way of speaking, and desire to do what is right are all present in the text. Alia, too, is an intriguing character. Her affliction and backstory are tragic, and, though she lacks Diana’s Amazonian attributes, she is, in many ways, just as brave as the burgeoning Wonder Woman.

There is a wide cast of characters in Wonder Woman: Warbringer: Alia’s brother Jason, best friend Nim, Jason’s friend Theo, Diana’s mother Hippolyta, adversary Tek, best friend Maeve, etc. Keeping up with their many personalities, backstories, and motivations was something of a juggling act.

As someone who teaches The Odyssey and sometimes struggles to drive home the many Greek gods and goddesses present in the text, this book presents a unique opportunity. Students could read excerpts from Wonder Woman: Warbringer and examine the ways the gods influence Diana’s story compared to the story of Odysseus. No matter how you use it, Bardugo’s novel would be a smart addition to a classroom library. Diana’s dedication to truth and righteousness makes her a hero worth emulating.

Book Review: Words on Bathroom Walls

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Walton, Julia. Words on Bathroom Walls. New York: Random House, 2017. Print.

Although I have read some amazing fantasy books this year, YA contemporary fiction continues to be my favorite genre. As a teacher, there’s nothing more satisfying than locating a book for a student that deals with the same issues they might face in their day-to-day life. I love that today’s contemporary authors don’t shy away from tough topics, including mental illness. A great example of this is Julia Walton’s Words on Bathroom Walls, which centers on a teenage protagonist struggling with schizophrenia.

Sixteen-year-old Adam has entered a clinical trial for a new schizophrenia drug, ToZaPrex. This trial requires regular visits to a psychologist, but Adam refuses to engage in conversation during his appointments. He reaches a middle ground with his psychologist: he will answer the doctor’s questions in a journal. Within this journal, Adam chronicles his transition to a new, Catholic high school. Along with typical high school issues—classes, homework, making friends, dealing with bullies—Adam must also deal with the constant presence of his hallucinations. They range from Rebecca, a quiet, reassuring woman, to a group of mobsters who fire weapons into the ceiling.

Adam notices slight improvement while on ToZaPrex, and this is coupled with an exciting development: he meets and begins dating one of his classmates, Maya. A smart and attentive girl, Maya notices Adam’s twitching and grimaces. As their relationship intensifies, Adam considers telling Maya about his schizophrenia, but fear of her reaction keeps him silent. Just when things seem relatively calm, Adam receives some bad news: he isn’t making progress on ToZaPrex, and he will be dropped from the clinical trial. How will the lack of medication change Adam’s symptoms? Will he be able to function during the school day? Will he ever reveal his secret to Maya?

Words on Bathroom Walls is a quick, smooth read. Adam’s narrative voice is authentic, and the reader will feel as though they are privy to his private thoughts and struggles. There is truly no way to read this novel and not come away with a different point-of-view regarding mental health issues. In one of the most poignant sections of the book, Adam compares his life and illness to that of the perpetrator of the Sandy Hook Massacre. He knows that his illness will always scare and appall others, and that sort of loneliness and ostracization is difficult to imagine.

There is a pivotal moment in the book when Adam’s illness is revealed to his classmates. Without giving too much away, this scene is described in a quick, choppy manner, and I wanted more clarity regarding such a large reveal. It can be argued that the ambiguity speaks to Adam’s mental illness, but I still wished the entire scene was considerably slower.

Teachers who tackle psychological issues in their curriculum or teach a psychology class will want to check out Words on Bathroom Walls. It can serve as a springboard for discussions about a variety of issues—witch hunts, modern medicine, honesty, blended families, and religion. Students will be drawn in by the easy, conversational language and the vulnerability behind Adam’s tale.

Book Review: The Upworld

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Frantz, Lindsey S. The Upworld. Line by Lion Publications, 2017. Print.

Appalachia is my home, but depictions of the area in movies and books haven’t always been kind.

In recent years, I’ve been happy to see a surge of writing that celebrates Appalachia by acknowledging its flaws but also highlighting its beauty, knack for storytelling, and strong community ties. That’s why I was excited to begin reading Lindsey Frantz’s debut YA novel The Upworld, set entirely in Kentucky.

In a dystopian future, Appalachia has been divided into three distinct factions: those who dwell above ground in communities, those who dwell in caves below ground, and the Wylden, dangerous savages who travel in packs. Erilyn spent her early life below ground until a shameful accident wrought by her telekinetic abilities forced her to move “up world”. There, she met and befriended a woman named Rosemarie who taught her to forage and live off the land. After Rosemarie’s death, Erilyn lives alone in a pine tree with only her large feral cat, Luna, for company. Everything changes when a boy from one of the communities, Finn, runs into the forest, pursued by Wylden.

After assisting Finn via her supernatural abilities, Erilyn nurses him back to health. The two develop feelings for one another, but as Winter looms closer, Erilyn knows that she cannot forage enough food to sustain two people. She convinces Finn to return to his community of Sunnybrook, but Finn refuses unless she accompanies him. It’s been so long since Erilyn was around others—will she adjust? Will the citizens of Sunnybrook discover her abilities? Does Finn’s ex, Morrigan, have it out for Erilyn? Is the mayor of Sunnybrook, Cillian, as innocent and friendly as he seems? And will Erilyn ever face the damage she caused below ground?

Frantz masterfully builds tension and suspense in The Upworld. Whether Erilyn, Finn, Luna, and company are running from Wylden, fighting their way out of Sunnybrook, or crawling through underground caverns, a sense of urgency is continuously present. Erilyn’s abilities are plainly stated and readers can easily put themselves in her shoes. The characters are multi-faceted—like Erilyn, we aren’t entirely sure who to trust. And the cover is beautiful—this is certainly a book you’ll want to display on your bookshelf and photograph for Instagram.

I desired more spark between Finn and Erilyn, perhaps more scenes of them growing together during their time alone in the forest. I also didn’t care for the nickname “Eri”—but I’m never a fan of shortening a main character’s name.

This novel would be a perfect addition to a dystopian unit. I’m using the prologue of this story (found in this anthology) with my classes this school year. Students who are fans of The Hunger Games and other books featuring powerful female protagonists will certainly be enthralled with both Erilyn and The Upworld.

Book Review: Song of the Current (June Uppercase Box)

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Tolcser, Sarah. Song of the Current. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017. Print.

Sometimes, being wrong is a good thing.

I’ve never been a big fan of pirate stories. The Pirates of the Caribbean movies admittedly lull me to sleep. Novels set at sea or within a boat have never been my first choice of reading material. So, when I saw a copy of Sarah Tolcser’s Song of the Current in my June Uppercase Box, I steeled myself for disappointment.

And I’m happy to report I was wrong. Very wrong. Tolcser’s novel is quite possibly the best book I’ve received from Uppercase and one of my favorite reads of 2017 (so far).

Caroline “Caro” Oresteia has spent her life on the river aboard her father’s wherry, Cormorant. She assists her father in delivering cargo and the occasional shipment of smuggled weapons. Caro’s father converses heavily with the god of the river, and Caro hopes that someday she too might have an experience with the divine. In the meantime, Caro’s focus is singular: she wants to take the reins of Cormorant upon her father’s retirement.

Caro’s life changes when she and her father sail into the town of Hespera’s Watch. There, the duo learns that a group of outlaws known as the Black Dogs have destroyed wherries in pursuit of an important piece of cargo. When officials in Hespera’s Watch cannot convince Caro’s father to carry this cargo to the intended recipient, he is jailed. Caro, in exchange for her father’s freedom, decides to sail Cormorant on her own and make the delivery. Caro is given a letter of marque and strict instructions not to open the box she is transporting. But, after a close scuffle with the Black Dogs, Caro can no longer resist—she has to open the box. What is inside? Why are the Black Dogs determined to confiscate it? Will Caro free her father?

Song of the Current’s strengths lie in its pacing and characterization. Whereas most novels that take place at sea tend to feel slow, the urgency behind Caro’s mission keeps the action moving. And Caro Oresteia is an intriguing, multi-faceted protagonist. Her love of the water, fierce loyalty to her family, and desire to converse with the gods will have the reader rooting for her from the book’s very beginning.

There is little to dislike in Tolcser’s tale. Those unfamiliar with sailing (like me!) might struggle with the nautical terminology, though Tolcser’s website contains a glossary. There is also an undefined though clearly burgeoning romantic relationship at the book’s end, and I wanted a bit more clarity. There is a sequel slated for next summer, though, so I’m hoping to receive answers then.

I am excited to recommend this book to my students, particularly those who enjoy novels with lots of action and suspense. Song of the Current makes some great social commentary as well—there are themes of political coercion, class warfare, and revolution. I can only hope that discussing Tolcser’s novel with my students will hold me over until the release of the sequel.

Book Review: Caraval

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Garber, Stephanie. Caraval. Flatiron, 2017. Print.

As an aspiring author, I am always eager to hear how today’s popular writers overcome rejection and adversity.

I was fortunate to see many great young adult authors at this year’s BookCon, among them Stephanie Garber. Sitting on a panel with other YA authors, Garber talked about the sacrifices she made while penning her novel Caraval, including moving back in with her parents and dealing with various rejections from publishers. This surprised me as I’d seen Caraval’s beautiful cover on bestseller lists and Instagram posts. The humility and friendliness Garber displayed made me even more anxious to get my hands on Caraval.

Scarlett Dragna and her sister Donatella have grown up hearing fantastical stories of Caraval. A mixture between a carnival, scavenger hunt, and circus, Caraval takes place at a different location each year and is orchestrated by a mysterious man named Legend. Although Scarlett has longed to attend the event since childhood, she remains planted on her home island of Trisda, carefully watched by her cruel and abusive father. When her father orchestrates a marriage between Scarlett and a mysterious Count, Scarlett feels the remainder of her life has been mapped out. She might not ever get to see Caraval, but the marriage will present her with the opportunity to get away from her father and take Donatella with her.

Just as Scarlett has accepted her fate, she receives a personal letter and invitation from Legend himself. She at first resists the idea of attending, but after some forceful persuasion from her sister and Julian, a mischievous sailor, Scarlett finds herself heading to Caraval. Participants are tasked with solving a mystery using various clues spread throughout the island. After Scarlett and Donatella are separated, Scarlett is horrified to learn that, this year, the game will revolve around locating her missing sister. Scarlett must work quickly in order to locate Donatella and return to Trisda before her upcoming wedding. Will the sisters ever be reunited? Can Scarlett trust Julian? And why did Legend request Scarlett’s presence?

Although fantasy is not my favorite genre, I have read a few novels with such fantastic world building that I’ve suspended my disbelief: the Harry Potter series, Alice in Wonderland, and now Caraval. This novel is drenched in imagery—rich descriptions of clothing and jewelry, vivid landscapes and interiors, various magical items and people, etc. Like all well-written fantasy novels, readers will believe the possibilities are endless for Scarlett. It is feasible that she would find a hidden passageway or take a potion that turns her world black and white or bring the dead back to life.

There are moments, however, when the descriptions in Caraval teeter toward ridiculousness. For example, a book in the novel is described as being “the color of dark fairy tales”. Two of the main characters are also extremely flat: Scarlett’s father and Scarlett’s fiancé.

Still, Caraval is a truly magical read from beginning to end, and students will be enraptured by Scarlett’s tale. There are a variety of ways to use this novel in the classroom. I’m planning on having my students annotate passages from Caraval when teaching imagery. With such lush, fantastic writing, there are few texts better suited for the job.