Friday, February 26, 2016

Review: Not Otherwise Specified by Hannah Moskowitz

Title: Not Otherwise Specified
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: March 3rd 2015
Pages: 425
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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Etta is tired of dealing with all of the labels and categories that seem so important to everyone else in her small Nebraska hometown.

Everywhere she turns, someone feels she's too fringe for the fringe. Not gay enough for the Dykes, her ex-clique, thanks to a recent relationship with a boy; not tiny and white enough for ballet, her first passion; and not sick enough to look anorexic (partially thanks to recovery). Etta doesn’t fit anywhere— until she meets Bianca, the straight, white, Christian, and seriously sick girl in Etta’s therapy group. Both girls are auditioning for Brentwood, a prestigious New York theater academy that is so not Nebraska. Bianca seems like Etta’s salvation, but how can Etta be saved by a girl who needs saving herself?
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I've loved every Hannah Moskowitz book I've read, but I think this one might be my new favorite. Even though it's nowhere close to the saddest or funniest book I've read, Etta's voice immersed me in the story and made me feel everything so intensely. I read this book on a flight, and I kept getting stares from the guy next to me because I would laugh out loud and randomly start crying while reading. Hannah Moskowitz's books, and this one in particular, feel very personal to me and always elicit a lot of emotions because they're such important and powerful stories.

I am so happy to finally read a book with a bisexual main character - isn't it sad that, out of all of the books I've read, Not Otherwise Specified is the first and only one with a main character who calls herself bisexual!? The way the novel demonstrates the struggles of bisexual people, of not being accepted by the straight or the gay community, is so, so important. This book gets all of the feminist points for the ways it explores gender and sexuality; it's so deep within feminism that it questions dominant feminist ideas from within (if that makes any sense), complexifying issues of gender and sexuality in ways that I loved. Etta has a very nuanced perception of these issues (as well as her race), which makes for a very honest and realistic portrayal: for example, when Bianca struggles with reconciling her brother's homosexuality with her religion, Etta steps up to defend her from those who are calling her homophobic. She's a lot more open-minded about closed-mindedness than I am, which makes for a very nuanced discussion and portrayal of these issues.

In addition with struggling to be accepted because of her bisexuality, Etta is also recovering from an eating disorder. I really loved reading about someone who is actually recovering: I've read tons of eating disorder books, but they always end when the character makes the decision to get better, without actually exploring what recovery is like and showing the ups and downs that can happen along the way. The portrayal of Etta's recovery is honest and real, and I also loved reading about Bianca in this context: the dynamics between two girls at different stages of their eating orders were fascinating. 

Then there's the element of dance and musical theatre. I can't judge how realistic this part is - all my knowledge of ballet school and all of that comes from other YA books, and in those books it always seems harder and more competitive to get to the point where Etta is, so I don't know how realistic it is for her to be getting by the way she is. But I didn't really care because I loved this part of the novel, too. Etta's relationship with ballet is complex, but her passion shines through. Her decision at the end is not what I expected, but I loved it.

But none of these elements are really the main focus of the novel; Not Otherwise Specified is just about Etta, and Etta refuses to be defined by any one of these things. Etta's incredible voice is what carries this whole novel. She is such a real person that she just jumps off the page, and I'm convinced Etta exists in the real world somewhere. Hannah Moskowitz's signature stream-of-consciousness writing lets you think and live along with Etta. She makes terrible decisions sometimes, but they make sense when you're inside her head. Her humor always shines through, and I just identified with her voice so much. 

The secondary characters are great, too. I especially loved Etta's relationships with Bianca and Rachel. Based on the back cover, I had assumed this would be more of a romance between Etta and Bianca, but it's more of a complex friendship than anything romantic. The feelings Etta has for Bianca and Rachel are complicated and explored in depth. I also loved James, Mason, and the rest of the cast, but Bianca and Rachel were the ones who intrigued me the most, asides from Etta.

The ending made me so happy I cried. I can't really explain it and it wasn't what I was expecting, but it fits so perfectly with the rest of the novel. I don't even know why, but it was so good that it had me crying for a while after I had finished the novel, for no specific reason other than that this book felt very personal to me and is such a powerfully moving story. If you've liked Hannah Moskowitz's previous books, you'll definitely love Not Otherwise Specified, and if you haven't, you should definitely give her books a try. Her books are always so personal to me and so moving that recommending them to others feels like giving away a piece of myself, but her books are so important that they need to be read.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Boo by Neil Smith

Title: Boo
Author: Neil Smith
Publisher: William Heinemann
Release date: May 12th 2015
Pages: 310
Genre: adult fantasy(?)
Source: Gift from Cornerstone Publicity - thanks!
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When Oliver 'Boo' Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a 'gommer', a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from his volatile classmate Johnny, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives.
In a heart-rending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is officially marketed towards adult audiences, but I think it has a lot of YA crossover appeal, so I decided to review it on the blog anyways. And I think Boo would be a great read for adult audiences as well as YA readers. It's been compared a lot to The Lovely Bones, and I can definitely see some similarities, but I actually liked Boo a lot better than The Lovely Bones. Rather than following the story on earth from the perspective of a dead person the way The Lovely Bones does, Boo has an actual plot of what happens up in heaven, intricately tied in with what happened on earth before the main character's death. With a captivating mystery, a unique portrayal of the afterlife, and excellent writing and characters, Boo has everything you could ask for.

I loved reading about Neil Smith's take on heaven or the afterlife. At first, the idea that this heaven is only for American thirteen-year-olds seemed a bit contrived and too convenient, but once you suspend your disbelief, it really works. This heaven is a lot closer to our normal lives than most people would describe heaven to be, which means that our earthly logic applies to many aspects of life in heaven, but not all. Boo is fascinated by this and is constantly conducting experiments and trying to figure out what rules apply to life in heaven, which was fascinating to read about. I especially liked how passing into heaven changes some things about people but leaves others the same, which brings up really interesting questions about what about people needs to be "fixed" and what disabilities are really just social constructs.

Boo is a great narrator for this story. For a thirteen-year-old boy, he is very mature, making his narration very introspective, analytical, and straight-to-the-point. His voice is often sarcastic or just questioning of society, which makes for an entertaining narration even in  dire situations. I really grew to love Boo and his random quirks over the course of the novel. The strong voice manages to convey a wide array of emotions: due to the dark subject matter, of course there are scenes that will make you want to cry about the hopelessness of the situation, but there are also plenty of scenes that will make you crack a smile.

Even though I loved pretty much everything about this book, the mystery is what kept me flipping the pages and made me desperate to find out what would happen next. I guessed the final plot twist early on, but I never would have guessed all the plot twists that got us to that point. The suspense had me on the edge of my seat throughout the novel, and I love how the mystery ties in with the unique setting: it's a murder mystery with the added suspense that these are unprecedented events in heaven and that no one really knows what's going to happen, since the rules on earth don't all apply to life in heaven. That element made for a very psychological thriller where you can never really know who's good and who's evil, or what it even means to be good or evil.

What I loved most about Boo is how it combines such a suspenseful story with a ton of moral questions. I can't go into this too much without spoiling things, but the mystery brings up questions of what it means to be good or evil, about punishment and forgiveness, and about mental illness in relation to committing crimes, and so on. The story back on earth also presents a nuanced perspective on bullying and school shootings. All of these issues are addressed in a very open-minded way, complicating our understanding of things rather than getting preachy about the "right" way to look at these issues.

At the end, I was still confused about some things and wanted more answers to all of the questions the novel poses. But in a way, I didn't mind this confusion, because it mirrors Boo's confusion about what has happened and our own lack of knowing about the afterlife, and even many elements of life on earth. This novel gives no simple answers, which can be frustrating at times but really just makes sense with this type of story.

If you're looking for a thought-provoking read that combines a unique, suspenseful story with a lot of deeper questions, Boo is the book for you. I absolutely loved the writing, the characters, the suspenseful plot, the intriguing perspective on the afterlife, and the nuanced way the novel poses questions about the afterlife as well as life on earth. Definitely recommended!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Review: The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick

Title: The Boy Most Likely To
Author: Huntley Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Dial Books
Release date: August 18th 2015
Pages: 425
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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Tim Mason was The Boy Most Likely To find the liquor cabinet blindfolded, need a liver transplant, and drive his car into a house

Alice Garrett was The Girl Most Likely To . . . well, not date her little brother’s baggage-burdened best friend, for starters.

For Tim, it wouldn’t be smart to fall for Alice. For Alice, nothing could be scarier than falling for Tim. But Tim has never been known for making the smart choice, and Alice is starting to wonder if the “smart” choice is always the right one. When these two crash into each other, they crash hard.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Like everyone else, I loved My Life Next Door and was super excited for its companion. And while The Boy Most Likely To is very different from My Life Next Door, I still very much enjoyed it. Instead of the swoony romance of My Life Next Door, we get a darker story more focused on the characters' individual issues. So if you're expecting another romance like My Life Next Door, you might be disappointed, but if you're open to The Boy Most Likely To being a darker novel more driven by character growth and serious issues, you will love The Boy Most Likely To just as much as the first book.

Tim's story was, by far, my favorite part of the book. Tim is such an intriguing character and unusual narrator in YA, and I loved getting to know him. I wish we could have gotten a little more background info on how he first got into drinking and all of that, but other than that, he is a fully-developed and complex character. His voice is compelling and distinct: his self-deprecating sense of humor shines through his parts of the novel, making even the more emotional elements funny and entertaining. His story takes a surprising twist that I can't really talk about without spoiling anything, and I really loved the whole story that develops from there on. This unexpected situation forces Tim to grow up a lot, and it provides a lot of emotional as well as funny scenes. The plot twists keep on coming in this storyline, making the novel a lot more suspenseful than I was expecting it to be.

Alice's parts weren't quite as surprising and unique as Tim's, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. Alice has been stepping in for her mother and taking care of the younger kids and everything around the house while her mother takes care of her father, which really shows the impact of what had happened in My Life Next Door. To me, Alice's story mainly seemed like a continuation of My Life Next Door, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because it lets readers return to the characters they loved and the storyline that fascinated them in My Life Next Door, but it does mean that Alice's voice isn't quite as strong as Tim's.

The romance, like I said, does not play as big a role in The Boy Most Likely To as one might expect from a companion to My Life Next Door. Tim and Alice already know each other in the beginning, but they slowly transition from their teasing semi-friendship to something more. I liked how this made it more of a slow-burn romance, with the attraction and chemistry building up while the main characters take forever to finally get together. But their relationship did bother me a little in the beginning, when it mainly consists of Tim continuously jokingly hitting on Alice, which just didn't sit right with me, and Alice finally admitting that she likes Tim too, without any deeper exploration of her feelings for him. But since the romance isn't the main focus of the book, this didn't bother me too much; I was mainly just enjoying both of their stories regardless of the romance.

I feel like The Boy Most Likely To was kind of falsely marketed as a romance; then again, I'm not sure how else you could market it considering the main storyline isn't revealed until later on. But if you're willing to accept that The Boy Most Likely To focuses on much darker issues and is very different in writing and in content from what we saw in My Life Next Door, it's a really great novel. I'm impressed by the versatility in Huntley Fitzpatrick's writing and can't wait to read what she publishes next!
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