Book Review: The Smaller Evil

evilTitle: The Smaller Evil
Author: Stephanie Kuehn
Genres:  Contemporary, Mystery
Pages: 256
Publisher: Dutton Books for Young Readers
Review Copy: ARC from Stephanie herself. Thank You!
Availability: Available Aug. 2nd

Summary: Sometimes the greater good requires the smaller evil.

17-year-old Arman Dukoff is struggling with severe anxiety and a history of self-loathing when he arrives at an expensive self-help retreat in the remote hills of Big Sur. He’s taken a huge risk—and two-thousand dollars from his meth-head stepfather—for a chance to “evolve,” as Beau, the retreat leader, says.

Beau is complicated. A father figure? A cult leader? A con man? Arman’s not sure, but more than anyone he’s ever met, Beau makes Arman feel something other than what he usually feels—worthless.

The retreat compound is secluded in coastal California mountains among towering redwoods, and when the iron gates close behind him, Arman believes for a moment that he can get better. But the program is a blur of jargon, bizarre rituals, and incomprehensible encounters with a beautiful girl. Arman is certain he’s failing everything. But Beau disagrees; he thinks Arman has a bright future—though he never says at what.

And then, in an instant Arman can’t believe or totally recall, Beau is gone. Suicide? Or murder? Arman was the only witness and now the compound is getting tense. And maybe dangerous.

As the mysteries and paradoxes multiply and the hints become accusations, Arman must rely on the person he’s always trusted the least: himself.

Review: One of the reasons I love Stephanie Keuhn’s books is because they not only are they thrilling mysteries, but they also explore the very mystery of how our mind works in all it’s complicated beauty. The characters in her books are all struggling with living with mental illness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, in their daily lives and struggling with all the usual angst that being a teenager brings. And, in Keuhn’s books, things are always never what they seem. And in her 4th novel, the reader is taken on an journey that has them just as confused as the main character Arman, which isn’t a bad thing, it just means the mystery was so well plotted that there is no way the reader can figure it out until the reveal. And I love that in a book.

As I mentioned, all of the protagonists in Keuhn’s books struggle with mental illness, Arman is her most touching yet. Arman suffers from severe anxiety, almost crippling at times, and feels that the Evolve retreat is what will heal him. He is on medication to help him with his anxiety, but it doesn’t really help him at all. The self-doubt, the self-loathing, the depression that he feels is so strong that he truly believes he does not have any worth to society, and this completely broke my heart for him. Having the novel be so close inside Arman’s head truly give a glimpse of what someone with severe anxiety and depression goes through, how their own thoughts hamper them from truly functioning sometimes. Arman would often try to pump himself up, but then his self-doubt, which was much stronger than his self-love, would take over and he would not trust any progress he made while at the retreat center. Compounding his low self-worth is that when Beau disappears, no one initially believes him which doesn’t help Arman’s state of mind in the slightest. However, this is also where Arman shows great strength and grows as a character. It is for his admiration of Beau that Arman doesn’t allow himself to let his self-doubt and anxiety take control. Arman knows, desires, to figure out what happened to Beau so he constantly fights with his own brain, his low self-esteem, and really fights to have his voice heard. His purpose drives him, and while it cannot cure him from his mental illness, it does allow to find a way to work with his illness.

As for the mystery surrounding Beau’s disappearance, as well as what is exactly going on at the retreat center, I can’t exactly say without giving spoilers, but I can say that at no point did I even come close to figuring it out. There were moments where I felt Arman’s frustration with being so left in the dark without any clues as to what was really going on in the story. Well, I take that back. There was tension between Beau and other leaders of the retreat center and I saw what that place was in danger of becoming, which added an extra level of concern for Arman because his spirit is in such a vulnerable position, that certain member of the retreat center could exploit if they wanted. Luckily, Beau and Arman’s mutual appreciation of each other was well known, so Arman was never in real danger.

Overall, I’m kind of in the middle with my thoughts on “The Smaller Evil”. It is a slow paced, quiet book that feels different from Keuhn’s previous books that had a lot of movement to it. This novel takes place primarily at the retreat center, and Keuhn does a great job of giving the reader a sense of place with her descriptions, but I feel that because the setting is in one place, the story just moves a bit too slowly. Also, my heart totally broke for Arman so I struggled with reading because I just wanted Arman to get the true help he needed and the retreat center was so not the place. It changes him, as all experiences do, but I wonder how much damage it did as well. This novel grabs your heart for Arman and doesn’t let go. It is a hard read at times because Keuhn does a great job with Arman’s neurosis and you truly, truly feel his pain. Because after all, that is what Keuhn excels at.

Recommendation: Get it soon.

Share

Review: Every Falling Star

Every Falling StarTitle: Every Falling Star: The True Story of How I Survived and Escaped North Korea
Author: Sungju Lee & Susan Elizabeth McClelland
Genres: Memoir, Non-fiction
Pages: 336
Publisher: Amulet Books
Review Copy: ARC received from publisher via NetGalley
Availability: Available September 13, 2016

Summary: Every Falling Star, the first book to portray contemporary North Korea to a young audience, is the intense memoir of a North Korean boy named Sungju who is forced at age twelve to live on the streets and fend for himself. To survive, Sungju creates a gang and lives by thieving, fighting, begging, and stealing rides on cargo trains. Sungju richly re-creates his scabrous story, depicting what it was like for a boy alone to create a new family with his gang, his “brothers”; to be hungry and to fear arrest, imprisonment, and even execution. This riveting memoir allows young readers to learn about other cultures where freedoms they take for granted do not exist.

Review: Every Falling Star is a compelling and intimate look at Sungju Lee’s life in North Korea when his family falls out of favor with the government. This is a personal story, and as such, it doesn’t have a wide-angled view on North Korean politics and history, which means that teens who aren’t familiar with the late 1990s/early 2000s history of the country may find themselves a little disoriented from time to time. Every Falling Star is, instead, the story of a child whose well-off parents tell him they are going on vacation only to slowly discover that his old life isn’t something he can ever return to. The book spans several years, from childhood to mid-teens. While the traveling-then-fighting-then-traveling-again sections can become repetitive, the tight focus on survival and the camaraderie between Sungju and his fellow homeless gang members generally keeps the story moving at a good pace.

Lee does an excellent job anchoring the reader with sensory details throughout the book, from describing what extreme hunger feels like to the conditions of a prison/detention center. He also takes the time to explore the good moments, and the frequent circling back to hope and friendship helps prevent the reader from becoming desensitized to what can be a brutal story. Lee and his fellow kotjebi (homeless kids) do whatever they can to survive, from stealing from marketplaces and government farms to fighting other child gangs to performing in the streets for money. Their tight-knit group helps keep everyone alive, as best they can, though they are not always successful.

I particularly enjoyed following Lee’s shifts in thinking about his country and his life through the progression of the book. The struggle for him to reconcile what he has been taught his country is like with what he begins to experience can be heartbreaking at times, such as his decision to drop out of school and begin helping his family full-time in foraging for food. Lee takes what useful things he can from his old life—particularly military stories and even his taekwondo lessons—and repurposes them to help his group.

While I have a few minor quibbles here and there, my biggest disappointment is the rather abrupt ending. Even with the epilogue, which sketches out some information about Lee’s life after he left North Korea, it feels rather thin and inadequate after such an in-depth look at this period of his life. Some of this is undoubtedly due to Lee’s caution in revealing too much information about his family—for example, he finally learned what it is his father did to fall out of favor with the government but cannot share those details without fear of possible reprisals against what relatives remain in the country—but it actually left me concerned for a few moments that my ARC hadn’t downloaded correctly. I would have appreciated seeing more of the aftermath of Lee’s escape, but the narrative essentially cuts off once he reunites with a family member.

Recommendation: Get it soon, particularly if you enjoy memoirs. The compelling narrative and evocative descriptions make this an relatively quick read, though you may find yourself putting the book down occasionally in order to recollect yourself.

Share

Book Review: Away Running

Away RunningTitle: Away Running
Author: David Wright & Luc Bouchard
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 297
Publisher: Orca Book Publishers
Review Copy: Copy from publisher
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Matt and Free discover the dark side of the City of Light.

Neither Matt nor Free ever imagined they would be playing American football in Paris, especially with a team from the poverty-stricken suburb called Villeneuve. Nothing in Matt’s privileged Montreal background has prepared him for the racial tension he encounters. And Free just wants to play football and forget what’s going on back home in Texas.

Review: Before I went to Paris I had a conversation with a writer friend about the Black ex-patriots who lived in Paris during the Harlem Renaissance because they felt that Black Americans were more accepted there than in the US. My friend asked, “so there is no racism in Paris?” Both my traveling buddy and I responded at the same time, “There is, but it’s different, especially towards Black Americans.” We went on to explain the racial tension that existed toward North Africans and other immigrants who live in Paris and how, for some reason, Black Americans were treated differently. So, when I received the email from David Wright about reviewing his book, I got excited because a) it was set in Paris and I was excited to relive through words a city I come to fall in love with, and b) the theme of the novel explored the very topic of my conversation with my friend.

I remember watching with horror and dismay at all the nights of riots that occurred in Paris after the three boys were electrocuted, which is the event Away Running is based on. Touched by the event, Wright and Bouchard chose to tell the story of the three boys and the rising tensions that led to the riots through the eyes of Freeman (Free) Behanzin and Mathieu (Matt) Dumas. Both young men are football stars in their hometowns on the brink of playing college ball. They also feel weighted down by family pressures and see their time in Paris as an opportunity to vacation while spending time doing something they loved. What they receive is an education that changes them greatly.

Instead of starting with the tragic event that causes the riots, Wright and Bouchard have us spend time getting to know the three boys in their friendship with Free and Matt. At the beginning, I wasn’t too fond of Matt because his privilege, even though he went to join the Villeneuve team specifically, was flat out annoying. His complete ignorance towards race and people of color experience life was expected because I knew that was part of his growth, however his inner thoughts towards Free really got on my nerves. He would judge/make fun of the way Free would talk in English and in French. He was making the same judgements towards Free that irritated him when other people would judge his Villeneuve friends. Though, Free did eventually call him on it, but I felt there was a missed opportunity for Matt to reflect on what Free said to him. I feel like some moments within Matt’s head as he grows to understand race and privilege through everything he experiences would have endeared me towards him more. Free also had to explore his own prejudice through the novel as he had preconceived notions about Arabs that bordered on Islamaphobia. His comes from his own personal experience with his father being deployed in Iraq, however, he does come to the realization that he is wrong and changes his views. It is through a touching moment with a friend’s father that really changes Freeman.

I like books that don’t insult the reader, books that don’t sugar coat the ugliness of life, and I’m glad that Wright and Bouchard chose to show the reality of life for North Africans living in Paris. When people think of Paris, they think of the beautiful City of Lights (and it is) but there are also dark parts to it that if you focus on just glittering city, you can miss what the true city is like. I remember taking note of some of the darker parts, the riots actually on my mind, so this novel brought all of those thoughts back. Wright and Bouchard did not hold back in showing the ugly racism that exists and how there are basically two sides to Paris. Both Matt and Free, because of their privilege (Free is there initially through a student exchange program and lives with a host family) live in the neighborhoods of Paris that we see in movies with the quaint architecture and beautiful streets. Villeneuve is the opposite of that, and the way the residents are treated is deplorable. Wright and Bouchard could have chosen to soften the blow, but they didn’t. The racist experiences Matt and Free witness (and experience), including the riots, are brutal and raw. The authors respect their readers, as they respect their characters, by giving us what life is really like in the City of Lights.

Recommendation: If you love football and or love Paris, this is a good book for you.

Share

Mini-Review: Seven Ways We Lie

SevenWaysTitle: Seven Ways We Lie
Author: Riley Redgate
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 352
Publisher: Amulet Books
Review copy: Library
Availability: March 8th, 2016

Summary: Paloma High School is ordinary by anyone’s standards. It’s got the same cliques, the same prejudices, the same suspect cafeteria food. And like every high school, every student has something to hide—whether it’s Kat, the thespian who conceals her trust issues onstage; or Valentine, the neurotic genius who’s planted the seed of a school scandal.

When that scandal bubbles over, and rumors of a teacher-student affair surface, everyone starts hunting for someone to blame. For the unlikely allies at the heart of it all, the collision of their seven ordinary-seeming lives results in extraordinary change. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: The title kind of gives it away, even if you don’t read the jacket — Seven Ways We Lie is told through the perspectives of seven students, all different in their voices, cliques, and even sexuality (a pleasant surprise). At first, it’s a lot to juggle, but once you settle into the story, that’s when the going gets good. It’s a fun and arresting read, if a little stressful thanks to the ever present mystery of the teacher-student affair and its consequences.

I was initially worried a bit about the LGBTQIA representation, but each character is written in a vivid and engaging way, so my worries were mostly put to rest. I’d be very curious to see what someone with more knowledge of Autism and neurodivergence has to say about Valentine’s portrayal.

Seven Ways We Lie manages to tackle a wide variety of issues, and for the most part, incorporates them smoothly. There were moments when certain lines rang familiar — either they were wonderfully relatable, or too much like a text post from Tumblr. But generally, the issues were handled much better than they usually are in YA. It was refreshing to read.

If you’re looking for a contemporary YA to read, this is it. Seven Ways We Lie will gobble up your time and leave you wishing for more of this band of seven students. Grab it when you get the chance!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Share

Review: A Fierce and Subtle Poison

25810644Title: A Fierce and Subtle Poison
Author: Samantha Mabry
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 288
Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers
Review copy: Library
Availability: April 12th, 2016

Summary: Everyone knows the legends about the cursed girl–Isabel, the one the señoras whisper about. They say she has green skin and grass for hair, and she feeds on the poisonous plants that fill her family’s Caribbean island garden. Some say she can grant wishes; some say her touch can kill.

Seventeen-year-old Lucas lives on the mainland most of the year but spends summers with his hotel-developer father in Puerto Rico. He’s grown up hearing stories about the cursed girl, and he wants to believe in Isabel and her magic. When letters from Isabel begin mysteriously appearing in his room the same day his new girlfriend disappears, Lucas turns to Isabel for answers–and finds himself lured into her strange and enchanted world. But time is running out for the girl filled with poison, and the more entangled Lucas becomes with Isabel, the less certain he is of escaping with his own life. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: “The house at the end of the street is full of bad air.” Look, I don’t know about you, but any book starts out with a sentence like that is one I have to read. The beginning, with its gorgeous language and vivid storytelling, had me hooked.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is told from the point-of-view of Lucas, who wiles away his summers in Old San Juan with flings, hanging out at the beach, and vaguely resenting his father, who everyone in the area knows as a developer who’s either saving the island, or ruining it. When his girlfriend disappears, his life ends up colliding with that of the magical Isabel, and the mysteries surrounding the house at the end of Calle Sol only grow.

Lucas is believable as a teenage boy — to the point of frustration, at times. Throughout the book, Lucas remains buried in his romanticization of the girls around him and how grand his love is. I had to fight to not roll my eyes at several points. The women, both the central ones and those along the periphery, were far more fascinating.

Nevertheless, I loved reading A Fierce and Subtle Poison on the strength of the beautiful language and magical realism alone. The story flourished, in spite of Lucas, solely on the writing itself. I wish there had been more time devoted to exploring the magical aspects of the story, which was more murder mystery focused, but that was not to be. Also, I’m a sucker for plants, and a story centered around a house with an incredible garden… um, yes please.

A Fierce and Subtle Poison is definitely worth a read. I’m looking forward to whatever Samantha Mabry writes next!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

Share

Book Review: The Rose & The Dagger

The Rose and the DaggerTitle: The Rose & The Dagger
Author: Renee Ahdieh
Genres:  Fantasy
Pages: 420
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Review Copy: It was a Teacher Appreciation Gift!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.

In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid’s empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.

While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn’t yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.

Review: I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the sequel to Ahdieh’s amazing debut, The Wrath & the Dawn. I feel in love with that novel, inhaling her words, getting lost in the world building and the characters, specifically Shahrzad and Khalid. I loved their individual character arcs in the story and their arc as a couple. When I finished the first book, I was so ready to continue with Shahrzad’s & Khalid’s story that I had high expectations for The Rose & The Dagger. However, I feel a bit let down by it and I’m not entirely too sure why.

To me, the novel started out really slow. It begins just days after the ending of Wrath & the Dawn, with Shahrzad in the Badawi camp with Tariq and Rahim after fleeing the castle in Rey. Along the way, the trio picked up Shahrzad’s father who is in a coma-like state after using such intense magic. She meets Omar al-Sadiq, the Sheikh of the Badawi people and reunites with her Uncle Reza, who is both relieved to see her and upset at her survival at the same time.  I felt like the urgency of the situation was misplaced, focusing instead on Tariq & Shahrzad’s relationship instead of the tension that should come as Tariq prepares for war. Thankfully, this lack of tension doesn’t last long and the story really starts to move when Shahrzad figures out how to make the carpet fly and begins to put her plan into motion. However, some of the plan seems to be too easy, but I knew that it would fall apart at some point as I was only halfway through the book, and fall apart her plan did, but not in the way that one would expect, which I enjoyed. I like being surprised in a novel and there were some surprises in the sequel that I I liked and some that broke my heart.

Ahdieh introduces new characters in the sequel, such as Shahrzad’s sister Irsa, and we get to know characters that we were only briefly introduced to in the first novel. She expands on the magic that seemed to be only hinted at in Wrath & the Dawn. And I think this is where my “meh” feelings toward the novel stem from. Shahrzad learns a bit more about her magical abilities, but I feel Ahdieh could have spent more time exploring Shahrzad’s lessons with new magical character Artan, but the development of her magical talents appears off screen. I would have loved how the development of Shahrzad’s magic would have helped shaped who she is and added more depth to her character growth. Instead, there is no real payoff to the magical element in the story and after one point Shahrzad never mentions her magic again; it doesn’t even register as part of her identity.

At I think that is what is at the crux with my ambivalence to the novel.  I feel like the novel wrapped up to quickly and that plot points that seemed interesting really went no where. I feel like there was so much more to explore with the world that Ahdieh created and that this series really could have been a trilogy, or maybe even more (though I did learn there are 3 novellas, so there is that). I really wanted more out of this novel, and I was left wanting. Hopefully Ahdieh will return to Shahrzad’s world sometime in the future.

Recommendation: If you are dying to know what happens with Shahrzad and Khalid, then buy it now. If you are willing to wait a bit, then get it soon.

Share