I loved this book so hard I had a book hangover while reading it. Wait, is that a thing? Maybe I was just book drunk? Anyway, the point is, even while hanging out with dear friends (and my god-dog, aka The Best Dog Ever), all I could think about was this book and the characters and how I was sad I wasn’t reading it at that very moment. I even swung by work on Saturday to yell at the coworker who recommended it because instead of my usual excitement at adulting, all I wanted to do was park myself on the couch and devour the thing whole. But I digress – synopsis?
High school senior Eliza is the anonymous creator of the wildly popular webcomic Monstrous Sea, but in real life she has almost no friends (just two Monstrous Sea insiders who know her true identity) and school is torture because she’s considered so weird it’s contagious. Suddenly, there’s a new boy at school who’s also into Monstrous Sea and they become friends, and soon more than friends. Then she finds out that he’s really her biggest, most popular fanfiction writer, and also has a complicated home life that adds some interesting depth to the story and to their relationship (including stepparents/stepsiblings/half-siblings of different races, and a suicide). Eliza’s home life is a bit simpler, with the main issues being well-meaning athletic parents and younger brothers, but their family dynamic is complex and interesting (especially to me as someone closer to the parental side of the equation than the teen side). (Side note: when she starts dating Wallace, her mom insists on taking her to the doctor for birth control, which she puts up a bit of resistance to but it’s otherwise a nonissue. They do nothing more than a little kissing.) Spoiler alert: Eventually, as you might guess, Eliza gets doxed, her relationship with Wallace takes a major hit, and she is fearful of her safety, but her family rallies around her in unexpected ways and she realizes how much she’s been shutting them out in a very all-or-nothing attitude. It’s tidy and heartwarming, but in a believable way and I just loved it.
Secret identities like: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
First love like: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg
Fanfiction excerpts like: Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
12-year-old Olympia – Ollie to friends – lives in SoHo in 1981. Like her parents, she is an artist, and they live as Artists-in-Residence in a loft. There is a mystery of where her father has gone, and with whom, and her mother becomes severely depressed and goes to bed for several weeks and doesn’t get up. Ollie tells one of her best friends, Richard, and has urges to tell an adult what’s going on, but doesn’t until it’s quite far along. She finally tells her parents’ friend Apollo, who quickly makes arrangements for Ollie to go to “the Island” (unclear what island this would be) with her other best friend, Alex, and his family. When she gets back, her apartment building is on fire with her mom still stuck in bed. Trying to rescue her mother, Ollie, Alex, and possibly Apollo are injured, but it is in this physical healing that Ollie – and her mother – are finally able to mentally heal.
I loved most of the beginning of this book, all the vivid details about art and the world that Olympia inhabits. She has a lot of freedom as a city kid in the 1980s. As a result, she is very capable of taking care of herself (with a little help from Apollo). However, I was confused and annoyed about why Apollo didn’t go to her apartment and drag her mom out and get her help the moment he shipped Olympia off to the island. Why else would he send her away so immediately like that? If he just wanted to make sure she was looked after, he would have let her stay with him or found her another friend to stay with. There were some things about her dad’s situation that didn’t totally make sense to me either, and she seemed surprisingly okay with how her parents eventually ended up. (Spoiler alert: they break up and each have a new love interest.)
16-year-old James “Pup” Flanagan is the youngest of 8 in a close-knit, Catholic, Chicago family. His oldest sisters are referred to as “the sister-moms” and his oldest nephew is also a junior at the same high school (though the two don’t get along at all and Pup’s nephew teases him for being a poor student). Pup is closest with his sister Annemarie, and the whole family is still reeling from (but not dealing with or discussing) the death of his next-oldest brother, Patrick, from meningitis three years before. His brother Luke has failed out of law school and become a full-fledged alcoholic and drinking himself nearly to death, leading to a scene of domestic violence and an even more harrowing scene where Pup goes and drags him out of a dingy basement and gets him to the hospital. With Pup’s help, the family starts to heal together.
On the cheerier side, what gets Pup through the end of his junior year is photography, a Hail Mary (if you will) to save his failing art grade, which he turns out to be a natural at. He also happens to spend a lot of time with Abrihet, a classmate he vaguely knew but never interacted much with. Pup finally lets go of his longtime best friend and crush, Izzy, whose skeezy boyfriend pushes Pup’s crush into the open. As Pup gets closer to Abrihet, he realizes that what he has with Izzy is superficial and, worse, one-sided, and what he has with Abrihet is real and powerful. Even when Izzy finally gets wise and dumps Brody’s cheating butt, and comes to Pup for solace, he finds he doesn’t even want what he thought they had. Through it all, the metaphors of photography and what he is able to learn about himself through compiling a portfolio at his art teacher’s urging is quite moving and lovely.
A librarian friend recommended this one to me, selling it by saying that it’s the best first kiss ever and the last several pages blew her away, and I have to agree. (Well, to be fully honest, I was a little distracted when reading the kiss but upon rereading, it was delightful.)
When she was ten, Ruth Behar broke her leg in a bad car accident and was laid up for almost a year in a full body cast. This is a fictionalized account of that time, mostly made of her fuzzy memories and some embellishing to make it a slightly happier story than it was. (Reading the author’s note was very interesting!) Most interesting to me were how much she changed as a result – when she finally gets to go outside, she’s not soaking it in and begging to stay out, she is begging for the safety of her room and her bed. When she finally finally finally gets the cast off (after a couple of false starts that extend her time laid up by more than double), she is too scared to try to walk again. Her process of overcoming that fear was also fascinating.
Ruth describes her various friends, including Ramu (whose kid brother falls out of a window to his death and the rest of the family, overcome with grief, moves back to India) and Chicho, a lovely and possibly gay artist from Mexico, who is very kind to Ruth and her family. She describes Danielle from France who appears to be a fairweather friend but in the end comes through and they become quite close. Ruth’s mother sacrifices the most for her and bears the brunt of the emotional toll, which was also quite interesting to read (as an adult; I don’t think that would hold much interest for kids). Ruth and her brother Izzie (Isaac) are quite close as well and rarely fight, and she gets a teacher/tutor who not only helps her not fall behind, but with whom she advances to a 10th grade reading level after just graduating from the ELL class.
The other interesting thing to note is that Ruth and her family are Jewish and Cuban, the history of which plays a decent role in the story. I’m glad to encounter more books of Jewish people of color because theirs are narratives that outsiders don’t get to encounter too often and which are quite different from the white/Ashkenazi Judaism as most Americans probably think of it. Through Ruth’s healing, you can see the seeds of anthropology starting to grow; she is now an anthropology professor and has explored her own “Juban” roots through work like the documentary Adio Kerida and the book An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba.
When I first finished this book, I would not have given it 5 stars, but after pondering it for a while, I overcame most of my beef with the nonlinear way in which the story is told. Claudia tells the story of the disappearance of her best friend, Monday Charles, and how she discovered what happened to her. I normally really dislike nonlinear narratives but Jackson executes this one, if not flawlessly, then at least brilliantly. Chapters are titled The Before, The After, A Year Before the Before, Two Years Before the Before, and then a series with month titles, moving presumably through one of those years/times, though it is unclear when. When I finished reading, I felt like I still didn’t know a lot and had a lot of questions, so I went back through and re-read just the After chapters in order, and things made a lot more sense. And Jackson had to tell the story in that way in order for you to really experience how Claudia experienced the story. I’m reluctant to give away too much of the story because Jackson’s reveal of the plot is excellent, but I will say that my poor sensitive soul was WIRED reading this too late at night, so tread gently. Once I got into it though, I devoured it, so maybe devote a weekend day to it. I will also say that I was extremely glad to read that part of Claudia’s (and others’) healing at the end included going to therapy.
The story opens just minutes before a tornado levels 12-year-old Ivy’s home. She and her family join the other victims in the school where Ivy’s extremely personal art journal goes missing. When they take a room at the inn, it’s like sardines in a can – Ivy, her older sister Layla, twin baby brothers, and mom and dad. Eventually Ivy’s parents send her to stay with her best friend, Taryn, where she feels like a burden to her family. On top of all this, she is trying to figure out her feelings for her friend June, and reconcile that with the fight she overheard between Layla and her best friend, where Layla was upset that she had learned of her friend’s girlfriend from someone else. Ivy interprets this to mean that Layla was upset that Gigi was gay, and infers that she can’t tell Layla about her own emerging sexual orientation. Ivy also is feeling distant from Taryn, who can’t possibly understand any of what she’s going through.
Ivy and June, and even Taryn, seem extremely mature and self-aware for 12-year-olds. I liked that Ivy has a trusted gay adult she can talk to and who is kind to her. I also liked that her parents made mistakes and then apologized. Most of all, I appreciated getting into the mind of an artist and hearing how she worked. This book was a lovely read, and gentle, despite its turbulent (emotionally and elementally) subject matter.
You wouldn’t know Jarrett’s somewhat tumultuous childhood from the lighthearted books he’s known for, like the Lunch Lady graphic novel series and Platypus Police Squad. His mother struggled with drug addiction and was in and out of his life. When Jarrett was five, his grandparents successfully gained custody of him. Though they were salty, smoking and swearing and fighting with each other, there’s no doubt that he was better off in their care than with his mother. As they gained custody, she began drifting in and out of his life, in and out of prison and rehab. He recounts eventually meeting his father and half siblings, and the power of his first real art class with a teacher who encouraged him and believed in him. He shows us a school visit from Jack Gantos and how that impacted him. I would give this to a high schooler who either enjoyed Jarrett’s work when they were younger or someone going through some of the same things (absent parent, drug addiction, prison, being raised by grandparents).