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review 2017-05-26 06:02
Review: The Whole Thing Together by Ann Brashares
The Whole Thing Together - Ann Brashares

Quick review for a somewhat quick read for me, though it felt like I had to push myself through this novel several times. "The Whole Thing Together" has many issues, but I would echo concerns that much of this novel suffers from rampant cliches, insensitive references in the measure of racial attribution (considering it uses a racial slur casually and struggles constantly to accurately and sensitively portray the multiracial character who struggles with her identity) and sexism (slut shaming and odd fixations on physical details of the characters). In addition to those issues, I think the biggest downfall of this novel really came in that I just couldn't find a space to connect with the characters. Not as much as I wanted to, because there were parts of the narrative that had the potential to go interesting places, but never quite reached that point and abruptly halted in places where the development could've provided more intimacy than the narration allowed.

At its heart, "The Whole Thing Together" is a family drama, showcasing teens as well as young adults in a separate sections of the same family struggling through multiple phases and revelations in their lives. Think "Parenthood" or "Brothers and Sisters" in terms of TV dramas, only I think the characters in this novel were far less fleshed out. As ambitious as this narrative sought to be, it tried to take on far too much in a narrow scope, to the point where nothing really worked well. The narrative voices blended far too much for me to truly connect to them (I don't mind third-person omniscient POV, I read it quite often in many genres). I would hesitate to call this YA, it feels more like it straddles the line between YA and New Adult (at least if you think about certain themes tackled in this book).

The surprise revelation towards the ending was emotional, but I honestly think that it could've had more impact if the character constructions were stronger. In the end, it's a narrative with strong intentions, but the execution leaves an unmemorable and sometimes offputting portrayal that doesn't showcase the best of what Brashares can do, and as someone who liked the Sisterhood series, this left me greatly disappointed.

Overall score: 1.5/5 stars.

Note: I received this as an ARC from NetGalley, from the publisher.

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review 2017-05-13 06:16
Review: Empress of a Thousand Skies (Empress of a Thousand Skies #1) by Rhoda Belleza
Empress of a Thousand Skies - Rhoda Belleza

Quick review for a somewhat quick read (at least as far as audiobooks are concerned). I honestly enjoyed "Empress of a Thousand Skies", though it took me a while to really get started with it. The challenge for this story lies in the fact that it has multiple narrators, has a very extensive set of worldbuilding rules and jargon that may be difficult to adjust to at first, and follows different storylines that eventually converge and reveal themselves in terms of the link between characters. It also starts very sluggish with pacing and development, which to me was probably the narrative's biggest achilles heel through the beginning of the story. However, once I found the flow with the story, I honestly couldn't put the book down and I loved the experience. I honestly can't wait to see where this series ultimately goes, considering the stakes established and the character relationships.

In sum, this story follows two characters. The first is Rhee, a princess who is the last surviving member of her family after a tragedy befell them many years before. But Rhee knows it wasn't just an accident, and is bent on revenge against the person whom she believes is the culprit behind her family's death. It isn't long that she realizes that there are traitors in her inner circles who want her dead, and that her fight to keep her throne will cost more than she realizes. The other character is Aly, a reality star (DroneVision) who often faces conflict because of his racial background and war refugee status. Yet his world is turned upside down when he stands accused of murdering Rhee. The two have very different storylines and encounters, though both have to go into hiding and find themselves manipulated in a sinister plot that involves political and technological manipulation. The way the story is crafted with respect to the technologies and ambitions of the characters is very well done, and I was intrigued and taken in by the respective aims and motivations of the characters here. Sure, they start off as naive and driven by their own motivations, but as events and encounters come to light, they grow in significant ways, utimately facing losses, revelations about their role in events, and determination towards reclaiming their lives on their own terms.

I really enjoyed the audiobook narration by Rebecca Soler - she captured the emotional delivery and investment of the characters down to a tee. The only thing that I would say about the story that didn't strike me as well as most was the pacing and some meandering points in the worldbuilding that could've been tightened better, but the story itself was well done. I can't wait for the next book.

Overall score: 4/5 stars.

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review 2017-05-09 04:33
Review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas

I've been fortunate that the last several books that I've read in a stretch this year have been among my all-time favorites, and Angie Thomas's "The Hate U Give" is no exception to that. Any review that I write really won't convey the depth of how much I loved and appreciated this book, but nonetheless I'm going to do my best to try and hope that it inspires others to read this undeniably necessary and engrossing book.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement alongside actual events that have occurred in the past several years, "The Hate U Give" is the story of Star, a young woman who witnesses her friend Kahlil being shot by a police officer after they are pulled over one night. What transpires after that is a realistic portrait of racial tensions and family struggles that Star finds herself within front and center. I thought the characters and voices conveyed in this book were so honest, real, and dimensional that I couldn't put the book down - I was very invested in her overarching story. Whether it was talking about the differences between her home and school life, her family history, her grief over seeing two people she knew and loved dearly killed at gunpoint, Star's narration held my attention from beginning to end. (It certainly helped that Bhani Turpin provided a great narration to the audiobook.)

This is a book with many different layers to pull from. Usually I say the best stories that stick in my mind are those that are multidimensional in not only the showcasing of the events, but also provide dimensional portraits of the characters within. From the beginning of this book, Star's strong voice and personality lept off the page for me. I liked her interactions with her friends, her honesty, confidence and even pieces of her vulnerability and doubt as events transpire through the story. Watching what happened to her and Kahlil broke my heart (especially knowing so many real life stories that mirror Kahlil's). Her grief comes in waves through the narrative as she struggles to come to terms with it alongside her family as well as her community. I honestly thought it was refreshing to see a YA story that also focused so strongly on Star's interactions with her family and friends. There are moments that are tense given the events, insecurities, and flaws each of the members of Star's family (Star included) have, but there are also refreshing moments of humor and grounding that I really appreciated. The romance is very well done for the bit showcase it has in the story.

Ultimately, Star plays an important part of the narrative as she struggles to seek justice for Khalil against the people and perceptions that skew the person she knew him to be. She doesn't find the strength to speak up right away, especially with so many different events and setbacks that make her fearful and angry. The narrative takes an honest look at racial prejudices and injustices from a multitude of angles, some overt and others more subtle. It gave an honest look at Star's reactions and rationales to a number of things she endures and witnesses through the narrative, and I think that's something many people will get out of this narrative long after the final page is turned. She doesn't back down from trying to do the right thing and have people understand her, and even when realizing the reality of situations that go horribly awry, she ultimately learns when to stand up and speak and when to let go (even if it means letting go of relationships she once had).

I definitely appreciated the whole of "The Hate U Give" and indubitably consider it one of my favorite reads of 2017.

Overall score: 5/5 stars.

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review 2017-05-09 04:24
Review: Shadowshaper (Shadowshaper #1) by Daniel Jose Older
Shadowshaper - Daniel José Older

Initial reaction: One of my favorite reads this year so far. I loved this book so much. The MC had a strong voice and the overarching storyline was imaginative and exciting. I'm definitely looking forward to the sequel.

Full review:

I'll admit I saw this book on the shelf at my library and was completely taken by cover lust. If you also want a different experience than reading the physical book, the audio version is wonderfully read by Anika Noni Rose (I ended up purchasing this from Audible because I loved the book so much.)

I think one of the things that I can say off the bat about this book's collective experience was that it was so much fun to read and very imaginative. I haven't read any of Daniel Jose Older's work before this point, but my experience with "Shadowshaper" makes me want to read more. The story revolves around a young woman named Sierra who descends from a long line of "Shadowshapers": those who can magically manipulate the art they create. Sierra's ill grandfather suddenly snaps out of his near comatose state, begging Siera to finish a mural that she notices has come to life and is quickly fading away. She doesn't understand what it means at first, but a rich history and harrowing adventure unfolds as Sierra discovers not only her hidden abilities but a rich and dynamic family history that was kept hidden from her because of the rising conflicts between members of her family. I really enjoyed Sierra's strongly asserted voice and the dynamic characters that I came to know in this book. Even the romantic angles of the story were well-developed and in a dynamic I was rooting for throughout the story. It's the kind of tale that I wish more YA novels had the depth and development to tell. Plus, the multicultural cast, lore and history really sets this book apart from many of its peers.

I'm definitely looking forward to the next book in the series.

Overall score: 4.5/5 stars.

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review 2017-03-18 16:35
Review: Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
Allegedly - Tiffany D. Jackson

Initial reaction: Long review coming probably sometime tomorrow when I can meditate on my end thoughts on the novel, which are complex and conflicted. This...may not be a book for everyone to read.

This book had me emotionally shaken and vexed on so many levels, that I don't even know where to begin. *sighs* I will say - to the narrative's credit - that it's well written, emotionally raw, and Mary's experiences come across as very true to life experiences for incarcerated minority youth for much of the book (not all of it, but a good portion). Tiffany Jackson gets the emotional intimacy and connection of characterizations for this book spot on. The tension in this book is so palpable that I found myself caught between putting the book down and picking it back up eager to read what happens in Mary's overarching case. It's a dark read and thought provoking in many places. At first I thought that this narrative would be something akin to reading the narrative "Push" by Sapphire, because the tone of the narrative felt like that to start (and interestingly enough, the narrative mentions Mary reading it at one point.) The aforementioned book was a rough read for me on its own but I appreciated it because of the real horrors and story told in that vein. This book doesn't go in that direction, but the emotional/physical abuse and fear that Mary endures in places is rage inducing and makes you feel for the character.

If you're sensing a lingering "but" to those notations, you would be hitting the needlepoint spot on. I sincerely want to pretend that ending (and certain events close to the ending) doesn't exist. While I don't mind having the rug pulled out from under me in an apt mystery/thriller, this didn't feel like that kind of story for much of the narrative. At the very least, one would think at this ending "Wait...there's an emotional mismatch here - that really didn't fit the rest of the tone of the story. Even if there were multiple unreliable characters here (and there are: fair warning without delving into too many spoilers), it doesn't make sense to go that direction because the story already had a compelling story in one tone. It reveals a pretty gruesome but notable reality for an underrepresented population."

At worst? This book does need a TW on several counts: several notations of homophobia (though one could argue that its influenced by the prejudices of the observed characters), body/sexual shaming (see previous notation), rape/complicit accessory rape/statutory rape (oh, I have a soapbox coming on this very subject matter on so. many. levels.), animal cruelty and dismemberment (I had to stop reading for a bit after that scene because I wasn't expecting it), among other things.

So, yeah, complex emotions. :(

Full review:

My initial rating upon finishing this book was 4 stars, and looks like I'm going to take it down to 3.5 because...MASSIVE caveats. There are brilliant moments in the narrative that really tugged at my heartstrings. I think the essence of Mary's story is true to the brutality that many young people of color experience in incarceration, juvenile pregnancy, power and abuse in the correctional system, power and abuse in personal relationships, gaslighting, among other things. It's true to life on some things, but ultimately not in others, and particularly with the progression up through the ending, this is a mature YA (I question it being YA, but I think teens could still read this and get something out of it) dark horror/thriller.

At first I thought that this was something that abruptly changed for the tone in the ending and I thought "Wait a minute, I wish that the book hadn't gone in that direction, because it was so good establishing what Mary's experiences were and illuminating some tough realities in characters who are like her." But the more I looked back through the story, the more I realized that it actually had foreshadowed this dark and foreboding tone; every single character in this narrative is one you can't trust on the surface because of the ultimate truths that are revealed about them as the narrative presses forward. It's one big nightmare that while I don't always agree with how it used elements to its execution, it also provides a space where I'm thinking about the narrative complexities and points long after I put the book down.

The baseline for this story has Mary as a 15/16 year old young black woman convicted in a juvenile home for troubled youth up until the age of 19. She's accused of killing a white infant which has a ton of media coverage and accounts close to Mary's case (which are brilliantly provided in snippets throughout the text, and it gives the narrative an authentic and complex feel). She's struggling to try to make a better life for herself, trying to get the opportunity to take the SAT, getting an education, confronting what seems to be PTSD surrounding details of the case that she's shut out because she doesn't feel like she has a voice or that people will believe her about what *actually* happened. Things become more complicated when Mary realizes that she's pregnant and the system will take away her unborn child if she doesn't say/do something. Hence begins the ball rolling as Mary struggles through hostile and demeaning/neglectful oversight, stern judgment from superiors and peers, a complete lack of support from her mother (her mother's blind religious hypocrisy and self-indulgence had me seeing red through the entire narrative, I thought in my mind "I've read/known about people who have done this to their children, and I can't deal because they are freaking horrible.") among other things to essentially get out of this entire ordeal. It creates sympathy for Mary's situation while holding back pieces of the actual case, revealing them in snippets as the story progresses.

Mary's baby father, Ted, is 18/19, at first appears supportive of Mary's efforts to get out of the system and be with her for the sake of being with her. Note I emphasize "appears", because once the truth about Ted's past actions comes across, it's...messed up. It's messed up enough that his relationship with her was statutory rape to begin with, but I was legit raging and had to put the book down for a time because of what's revealed about him in further spells. MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD.

No one can tell me to have sympathy for a guy incarcerated because he was complicit in holding down a young woman by her arms to be raped several times. Regardless if he was scared, regardless whether he "let her go", even if he didn't rape her himself, it's clear he was in denial about doing anything wrong and making the excuse he was "young" when it happened. Mary sees the hypocrisy in this and is sickened by it in spells, but exhibits denial about it in others - which angered me. Further reveals of Ted's character showcase him getting extra money by pocketing part of the money that a woman named Letitcia gets from her relationships and him bumming off from others relationships - which Mary uncovers going to visit him. I'm legit horrified by this (as is Mary). Mary attempts to get away from him even on that measure, but then goes back to being in denial about his actions/demeanor in spells. One could probably argue that Mary's demeanor was in constant denial about many, many things because the emotional weight of all that she endures, but this was something that messed me up reading this story.

(spoiler show)



So ultimately speaking, Ted can screw right off as far as I'm concerned. The horrifying part of this book in many notations is that it feels so vivid and realistic that I could actually see it happening from Mary's viewpoint, particularly with the way she wrestles with her reality and relationships more often times than not. I can see it even it there are details which aren't as ironed out as smoothly as they could've been. I think that's one of the things that sucked me into the story: that I believed it was Mary's experience and her voice is attuned to all the people she's surrounded by, fatal flaws and all. She's a compelling narrator, and I definitely felt for her and for many of the characters in the narrative. Hence when I finished "Allegedly", I felt like I could give it credit for the strong assertions, strong protagonist, and illumination of many different measures in a realistic way.

But at the same time, I feel like that even with knowing the narrative foreshadowed these revelations with the characters and case in itself, the transition and translation of that wasn't as strong as it should've been. So I've asked myself "Is this a 4 star read, is this a 3 star read? I'm going back and forth about it because as much as I liked the emotional resonance in it, I didn't like elements within it and how they were used."

So in the end, it's a strong 3.5 star read for me, and I'd encourage others to read this for the strong themes and character resonance, but be warned that the subject matters are mature and triggering.

Overall score: 3.5/5 stars.

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