Love and Other Four-letter Words by Carolyn Mackler — Reread Review

Cover: thestorygraph.com

I remembered liking Love and Other Four-letter Words as a teen, but didn’t recall any details of the plot. If I had, I might not have picked a story about a young person rocked by their parents separation so soon after reviewing The Suitcase Kid. While the circumstances are similar, Love and Other Four-letter Words is a more mature, more rounded story, as befits Carolyn Mackler writing for an older audience. That said, the themes of friendship (both old and new) certainly recalled Best Friend Next Door.

As we unlaced our sneakers and waded into Cayuga Lake, a motorboat whipped by, towing a small boy on an oversized yellow inner tube. The kid, both hands gripping the plastic handles, had a frantic expression on his face as his pleas to stop were swallowed by the rumble of the horsepower. The spotter was consumed with smearing on sunblock, the driver consumed with bikini-clad women capsizing a Sunfish. Which left the boy with two options: to catapult himself into murky waters, or to get dragged along, completely out of his control, until the powers-that-be decided to terminate his joyride. He chose the latter.

I kept revisiting that image over the next few weeks, as I watched my life being disassembled, one familiarity at a time.

Love and Other Four-letter Words, Carolyn Mackler

Sammie Davis was immediately sympathetic as a main character, her entire life changing around her and out of her control. Adult readers can see the places where she makes mistakes in how she handles things, but they are realistic errors given her age, and they build up to a satisfying emotional conclusion. Carolyn Mackler writes Sammie’s friends and family like real people, who all have their own lives going on, even when those lives aren’t particularly centred in the narrative.

The romance felt realistic, with all of that teenage held-breath excitement, without stealing focus from the rest of the story. There isn’t space for Sammie’s love interest to get a whole lot of personality, but he has enough for a book which is only about the very, very early stages of their relationship, and it’s nice that Sammie’s friendship with Phoebe gets more attention and feels like it has more of an impact on her life. Friendship is important and, as an author, Carolyn Mackler really seems to get that.

Love and Other Four-Letter Words is probably the reason I keep reading and rereading novels by Carolyn Mackler. None of the others quite live up to this level, yet, but I still have more to go so maybe I’ll discover another favourite.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Becoming Bindy Mackenzie by Jaclyn Moriarty — Reread Review

In Jaclyn Moriarty‘s Ashbury/Brookfield series, it’s quite a leap from Feeling Sorry for Celia to Finding Cassie Crazy in terms of the complexity of the plot and the depth of the characters. The jump from Finding Cassie Crazy to Becoming Bindy Mackenzie is bigger still. In the US, it was published as ‘The Murder of Bindy Mackenzie’, which gives you some idea of the dramatically higher stakes compared to the earlier books.

Unfortunately, it only partly works, at least for me as an adult reader. As far as I remember, when I read it closer to Bindy’s age, I really loved it, but at 34 the entire ‘murder’ plot feels unrealistic and also… uneccessary. There is more than enough going on in Becoming Bindy Mackenzie; the book doesn’t need a criminal gang of adults (who are, incidentally, almost as inept as the cast of teachers and parents).

I don’t know how I’m going to tell Dad. He will be so disappointed in me. I know it.
But he could not be as disappointed in me as I am in myself.

Becoming Bindy MacKenzie, Jaclyn Moriarty

What Jaclyn Moriarty does exceptionally well is Bindy’s character arc. Like Emma Woodhouse, Bindy starts the novel extremely unlikeable — in a peculiarly relatable way — but develops from there. Now that I no longer find these books as hysterical as I once did, the set-up section did feel a little long, but the look into Bindy’s history, and the way it explains why she is the way she is (without her first person narration ever being aware that’s what she’s doing) is really effective.

Emily Thompson may be many things, but, above all, she is loyal, determined and brave.
Imagine if she were my friend.

Becoming Bindy Mackenzie, Jaclyn Moriarty

As in the other two Jaclyn Moriarty books I’ve reviewed, all the other teenage characters are also well drawn, despite Bindy’s initial insistence on hating them all. Everyone (bar some of the adults) is a fundamentally good person, and that’s really nice. Reading about their developing friendships is the reason I sped through Becoming Bindy Mackenzie extremely fast, without even looking at the page numbers or realising when I was starting a new chapter.

Overall, I’d position Becoming Bindy Mackenzie as my second-favourite of the Ashbury/Brookfield series. There’s a lot to like, but the thriller plot doesn’t fully work for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — Reread Review

I really want to love Dumplin‘. I’ve been eyeing it on my StoryGraph TBR for weeks, hoping that I’d enjoy it more a second time around. It’s the kind of story I’m often drawn to: a young woman who has a difficult relationship with her family finds a group of friends who empower her and who she can empower in turn. Dumplin‘ definitely has elements of that, but I just can’t love it as much as I want to.

“I am happy,” I said, every syllable perfectly even. I don’t know how much truth there is to that, but I can’t imagine that fifteen or even fifty pounds would change how much I miss Lucy, how confused I am by Bo, or the growing distance between me and El.

Dumplin’, Julie Murphy

Willowdean is a character I have a lot in common with. For a start, her fights with her mum are every fight I ever had with my mum — from the greeting the comes with an appearance-based criticism to the ‘I just want you to be happy’. Beyond that, I also related to certain ways Will thinks throughout the novel. I think that’s why I want to like Dumplin‘, because I rarely see myself reflected in characters.

I wish there were some kind of magic words that could bridge the gap between the person I am and the one I wish I could be.

Dumplin’, Julie Murphy

My main problem is that Will’s character arc left me unconvinced. She kept saying she wasn’t body conscious, that she had bags of confidence to be herself, but that never came across. Maybe I was supposed to read into it that she was lying to herself, but, in that case, the ending where she finally believes in her own worth would come from nowhere. She makes a point about being all things, the good and the bad, the highs and the lows, which is another thing that I relate to — but at no prior point did that seem to be something she was struggling with! It’s not so much a character arc as a character meander, and that might be realistic, but it’s not very satisfying.

That said, the side characters, who have more straightforward arcs, work really well. I love Millie the most, there’s something wonderful about how sweet she is, and yet still willing to go after what she wants. Hannah is great, too, and Amanda, they all have well-deserved moments of triumph. Perhaps if this were more of an ensemble story, it would work better, but it really is All About Will for most of the book, which makes her a little less likeable.

Sadly, I won’t be bumping this up from my previous two-star review.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Finding Cassie Crazy by Jaclyn Moriarty — Reread Review

Previous in the series: Feeling Sorry for Celia.

I love Finding Cassie Crazy for a lot of the same reasons I love Saving Francesca — the friendship between the main female characters, and the love stories that unfold. Jaclyn Moriarty does a really great job of balancing these two elements so that neither one overshadows the other. There’s always something to keep me turning the pages, and while I don’t find the humour as side-splitting as I did the first few times, the letters/diaries are still charming and easy to read.

I once had an appointment with her to Gaze into the Girl’s Eyes, which she went and cancelled on me, and I’ve been waiting all term for a chance to Kiss the Girl.

Finding Cassie Crazy, Jaclyn Moriarty

Previously, I think I would have identified the romances as my favourite part, but this time around, it was Cassie. I identify with her so strongly, especially her urge to invite someone to keep hurting her over and over. When I was a teenager, I had an anonymous troll who’d belittle me and my life in cyberspace, but I never wanted to ban anonymous comments. It sounds ‘crazy’, but, though Cassie’s reasons are different than mine, I find them totally believable.

Sometimes, bits of craziness escape into the outside me. Like, I get addicted to writing a letter to a boy who hates my guts.

Finding Cassie Crazy, Jaclyn Moriarty

For me, this is definitely a step up from Feeling Sorry for Celia: there’s more going on, more interwoven stories, but the same warmth and heart to keep the reader engaged. I can’t remember enough about Becoming Bindy Mackenzie right now to state a preference between the second two books in the series. I suppose I’ll have to read it again to find out!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Next in the series: Becoming Bindy Mackenzie.

Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta — Reread Review

Saving Francesca was the first book I read by Melina Marchetta, and I knew instantly that I needed to read more. Character development is one of my favourite things in fiction, and Saving Francesca is basically built of character development! It’s not just that the main character, Francesca, develops, though she does, but that the entire cast of characters around her flourish as her attitude towards them slowly moves away from barely tolerating their ‘weirdness’ to accepting them as fully-fleshed-out friends for life.

Why do I feel as if something’s missing in my life without them and they don’t feel the same about me? That doesn’t make them bad, does it?

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

There’s not a character in Saving Francesca that I don’t love, except for Francesca’s old ‘friends’ and, even then, I appreciate how will written they are as villains. They’re horrible! The arcs of Jimmy and Thomas are particularly impressive, and very fitting for a YA novel. At first, they’re other, boys, and completely incomprehensible, but they make room for themselves in Francesca’s little group and it becomes obvious that there’s so much more to them than that.

The aspect I’m least interested in is Francesca’s love story, though I can see how it’s a necessary part of her momentum through the book. I’m just more interested in the friendships, and the hints of relationship drama that are buried there.

I enjoyed the book even more this time around because I knew that I’d be able to revisit these characters in The Piper’s Son, which I’ll have to review eventually! Saving Francesca certainly makes me cry, but it’s got nothing on the sequel, from what I remember!

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

It’s a weird smile, but it reaches his eyes and I bottle it And I put it in my ammo pack that’s kept right next to my soul. The one that holds Mia’s scent and Justine’s spirit and Siobhan’s hope and Tara’s passions. Because if I’m going to wake up one morning and not be able to get out of bed, I’m going to need everything I’ve got to fight this bastard of a disease that could be sleeping inside of me.

Saving Francesca, Melina Marchetta

The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson — Reread Review

The Sky is Everywhere is a physically beautiful book, at least my version of it. Every chapter has at least one photograph of a poem written on everything from discarded coffee cups to clarinet sheet music. I don’t think describing them quite does them justice, because they feel like they ought to be a cringe-worthy gimmick, but within the context of the story they never are.

All her knowledge is gone now. Everything she ever learned, or heard, or saw. Her particular way of looking at Hamlet or daisies or thinking about love, all her private intricate thoughts, her inconsequential secret musings — they’re gone too. I heard this expression once: Each time someone dies, a library burns.

The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

I cried almost every time I picked the book up, and sometimes more than once in a single reading session. And yet, the overall experience of the book wasn’t as raw or as overwhelming as that make make it sound. There’s a wonderful contrast between Lennie’s grief and Lennie’s lust for life, not to mention the guilt she feels over having any zeal at all when she ‘should’ still be in mourning.

The truck blasts through the trees and I stick my hand out the window, trying to catch the wind in my palm like Bails used to, missing her, missing the girl I used to be around her, missing who we all used to be. We will never be those people again. She took them all with her.

The Sky is Everywhere, Jandy Nelson

The characters are eccentric but believable, certainly in the way that Lennie relates to them. Only Bailey, despite being dying before the book even begins, truly matches the main character for depth, but Uncle Big, Joe, Toby, Sarah and Lennie’s grandmother make a very creditable supporting cast. I don’t feel the need to run out and read more stories about them, but only because this one came to such a satisfactory end. (And, thinking about it, I certainly wouldn’t say no to reading more in this universe!)

The Sky is Everywhere reminds me of Melina Marchetta’s YA Australian fiction and also of Sonya Sones’ YA narrative poetry collections. The language is descriptive without being overwrought and I’ve added a number of the quotations about grief to my commonplace book because they ring so true.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Feeling Sorry for Celia by Jaclyn Moriarty — Reread Review

I like epistolary novels, though Feeling Sorry for Celia isn’t one of my favourites. It’s a fine book, but I think it’s outshined by the sequels, which I plan to review later. That said, I still find that the teen drama and romance pulls me through the pages and makes me want to keep reading until I get to the end!

The chicken pieces are in the fridge already, so they have had experience being there.

Feeling Sorry for Celia, Jaclyn Moriarty

The main characters are good: I like Elizabeth and Christina and their growing relationship. Seeing Elizabeth and her mum get closer is enjoyable, as well. I think I found Feeling Sorry for Celia hysterical when I first read it, because I’d never read anything else like it. These days, it just gives me a few gentle chuckles, but that might be because I’ve read all the jokes two or three times!

I found the lack of chapters kind of annoying, which is something I definitely wouldn’t have noticed when I read it as a teenager.

They don’t know why, but they think I’m weird anyway, so it’s good to occasionally do something inexplicable and sustain the image.

Feeling Sorry for Celia, Jaclyn Moriarty

Overall, Feeling Sorry for Celia is fine. It gives you the set-up for Jaclyn Moriarty’s other books, but I don’t think you’d really miss out by not reading it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Next in the series: Finding Cassie Crazy.

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert — New Review

Cover: goodreads.com

The Hazel Wood is one of those books that has been sitting on my ereader (nicknamed ‘Wendy’) for so long that I don’t remember where I heard about it. On reading it, I instantly assumed that Rebecca must have recommended it, because it sounds exactly like her kind of thing, but apparently not! I picked this to read on my recent flight back from Portugal, and the conditions meant I didn’t take many notes, so this may be a shorter-than-average review.

I don’t usually go in for books that are creepy. I’ve never been a big fan of horror. But I can appreciate that The Hazel Wood was definitely doing things right in that regard. The mystery of ‘Tales from the Hinterland’ drew me right through the opening chapters, and the sudden onslaught of an intruder definitely took me by surprise.

I’ve read a lot of books that borrow from fairy tales, but not many of them actually make up their own stories to borrow from! At least, as far as I know the stories of Alice Three-Times and Twice-Killed Katherine are unique to The Hazel Wood. They both succeed at having that fairy tale feeling while also adding something unusual.

Even once I got off the plane, I wanted to finish The Hazel Wood. Sadly, I don’t think the ending quite lived up to the promise of the beginning. It wasn’t bad, just not particularly memorable.

All in all, an enjoyable jaunt into something outside my usual reading habits. I wish I could remember where I’d picked up this recommendation from!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I by Carolyn Mackler — New Review

As a teenager, I read two of Carolyn Mackler’s books, and if you’d asked me earlier this year I’d have said I loved Love and Other Four Letter Words a lot more than The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things. I reread both, because I knew I’d be writing this review, and was surprised to find my feelings were totally the other way around. I loved The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things in audiobook and was excited to read Carolyn Mackler’s sequel.

Sadly, rereading The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things so close to reading The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I really threw into focus how similar they are. I noticed that a lot of the character and relationship development in the first book is reversed in the early chapters of The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I. Virginia’s relationships with her dad, her best friend and the popular girl at school completely revert to what they originally were, rather than building from where they ended. Even the event that throws the plot into motion — Virginia’s brother being accused of date rape — is the same between the two books.

If I looked like her, my parents would love me unconditionally. They wouldn’t care that I’m a crappy driver and I can’t speak French and I swing a golf club like it’s a baseball bat.

The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, Carolyn Mackler

The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I isn’t a bad book. It’s exciting to read, it handles character development and family relationships well and is probably one of the better books-for-teenagers I’ve read. It’s not even a worse book than The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, it’s just that in many ways it’s the same book, and that was disappointing. I’d recommend The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I if you know you liked Carolyn Mackler 15 years ago, but can’t actually remember the plots of her novels very clearly.

Next, I’ll be reading The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch.

Rating: 2 out of 5.

The Fandom by Anna Day — New Review

Before I read The Fandom by Anna Day, I had this idea that I don’t like books in which real-world characters are sucked into a fictional or fantasy world. The Fandom and The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay made me reconsider. I think actually what I don’t like is that inevitable moment of dramatic irony where the reader knows (because it was on the back of the book) that the characters are in a magical/fictional world, but that characters haven’t figured it out yet, and their monologue is about how it’s such a convincing film set, or whatever. From a character realism perspective, you have to have that moment, but narratively it adds nothing, and it makes me cringe. Luckily, The Fandom didn’t dwell on that for too long, and started to immediately do far more interesting things.

Their physiques aren’t quite right — too skinny, slightly stooped, broad in the wrong places. I actually feel a little relieved, just seeing their humanity staring back at me.

The Fandom, Anna Day

The Fandom, Anna Day

The idea of Violet, the main character, experiencing her favourite book and movie as a real place was intriguing, and pulled me quickly into The Fandom. Violet’s emotions vacillate between excitement at meeting beloved characters and horror as the violence and deprivation of a dystopian society unfold around her. There are even meta-fictional references to tropes found in dystopian YA novels, which I appreciated despite the fact that’s not a genre I’m terribly familiar with. More than that, Anna Day clearly put a lot of world-building into The Gallows Dance (the book-within-a-book), and it pays off as Violet observes how much richer and more detailed the world is than the novel was able to convey. It made me wonder what details I would notice if I was transported into my favourite novel, but it also made me grateful I don’t have to experience quite that much ‘adventure’.

I notice the poster of President Stoneback hangs from the wall, softened by rainwater and torn by wind, same as the film. But this president has horns drawn on his head and a noose scribbled around his throat: detail which didn’t make it into the book, or the film, or my own mental image.

The Fandom, Anna Day

The Fandom, Anna Day

The plot, once it gets underway, keeps up the momentum and is genuinely exciting. Most of the characters are pretty great, and although the emotion didn’t get me in the way books sometimes do, it was definitely an enjoyable read. I have to admit, there was one aspect of the ending that I predicted a mile off, but even with that in the back of my mind, there were unexpected twists that I think Anna Day pulled off successfully.

Overall, The Fandom has a lot going for it. I’d recommend it to readers who enjoyed The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay, The Magicians by Lev Grossman or Frozen.

Next, I’ll be rereading Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta.

Rating: 3 out of 5.