Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Book–In John Green’s first novel since standout hit The Fault in Our Stars six years ago, Turtles All the Way Down follows 16-year-old Aza Holmes. She and her fearless best friend Daisy hear that the criminal billionaire father of Davis, one of Aza’s childhood friends, has gone missing, with a $100,000 reward offered for finding him. Daisy ropes Aza into trying to find him for the reward money. The actual heart of the book, though, is Aza and her struggles with mental illness, anxiety and intrusive thoughts.

Despite the mystery around which the plot revolves, all of the tension and interest in the story derive from Aza’s thoughts and her interior life. If you like John Green’s signature blend of philosophy, eloquence and navel-gazing, this is a great thing: you will love this book. If, like me, you prefer your books to be a touch more plot-driven and full of dialogue, you might prefer John Green’s other books, or possibly another author entirely. What I can say is that Aza has a strong narrative voice and her difficulties with mental illness feel utterly real. If you enjoy this book or want to read more YA books with mental illness themes, I recommend Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan or Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell.

Raw (2016)

Movie–Justine, lifelong vegetarian, comes from a family tradition of vegetarian veterinarians (try saying that 3 times fast). The movie follows her first days at her new school with her upperclassman older sister and her new roommate, the brutal hazing she and the other freshman endure, and the bloody consequences that ensue. The freshman class is drenched in animal blood à la Carrie and made to eat rabbit liver. Justine is pressured into eating it by her sister, despite their vegetarianism. This proves to be a terrible mistake. Justine finds herself with an sudden and insatiable craving for living tissue: hair, raw chicken cutlets, and even human flesh… The nightmarishly oppressive and clinical atmosphere of her school provides the ghastly backdrop for Justine’s struggle, and inevitable failure, to control her urges.

When this movie was screened at the Toronto film festival, some of the viewers fainted, and it’s not hard to see why. One scene in particular that takes place after a bikini waxing gone wrong is very hard to watch. Also, be aware that this movie is in French with English subtitles in case that’s not your thing. If you like Raw, you might also enjoy the cerebral cannibalism found in Hannibal seasons 1-3.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Book–Set in the near future, Palmer’s novel follows Rebecca Wright, a thirty-something recovering alcoholic, and her physicist husband Philip. Philip has been working fruitlessly for many years on a causal volatility device (in layman’s terms, a time machine), and as far as he knows, has not been having much luck. Meanwhile, Rebecca has been having a nagging sense that something is not right; the president is not the right person, her friends’ personalities aren’t quite right, her life isn’t what it should be. Palmer has an interesting take on time travel that, without spoiling anything, powers much of the narrative. For me, the attraction of this book was the depiction of the near-future society, where the president delivers personalized messages to each citizen and cars drive themselves.

While the main character is not, in my opinion, likeable, she is very real and flawed. Palmer’s views on race, gender, marriage, and technology are very much on display here and, regardless of whether you agree with them, they are certainly interesting to read about and only occasionally preachy. Version Control is a perfect sci-fi and literary fiction blend sure to appeal to fans of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Book–Henry “Monty” Montague, bisexual teenager and soon-to-be British lord, is a drunk disappointment to his abusive father. His last hurrah before descending into the doldrums of running the estate at his father’s side is his grand tour, the trip around the European continent that many young male aristocrats take to shore up overseas alliances and soak up some culture. Monty is not interested in alliances or culture; he’s interested in (read: has a massive crush on) his traveling companion, his biracial best friend Percy, and in getting drunk and laid as much as possible. Monty’s tour gets hijacked by his father sending along his sharp-tongued little sister Felicity and, even worse, a chaperone to keep Monty on a strict itinerary. However, when Monty swipes a MacGuffin from one of his father’s allies and highwaymen ransack their carriage to get it back, their tour takes a sharp turn toward adventure, complete with alchemy, pirates, and even true love.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is so darn much fun. Monty, Percy, and Felicity are all such well-drawn characters with great dialog and relationships with each other. While each of the characters has some darkness and secrets in them, the overall tone is optimistic. If I had any complaint about this book, it’s that it felt too modern. Monty’s coolness with his bisexuality (and conception of it as such) among other things seems anachronistic and is not entirely explained away by the Author’s Note at the end. If you enjoy this one, you might also like the Doctrine of Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette for a darker, more complex take on an adventuring and queer romance story or Simon Vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda if you were into it for the character dynamics and romance, but not the adventure.

Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent

Book–Oliver Ryan, famous children’s book writer, and his loyal wife Alice, who illustrates his books, have a seemingly happy life until one night, after a very good dinner, he hits her, leaves, then comes back to beat her into a coma. The rest of the book is like peeling the layers of an onion. Nugent jumps around in chronology and in viewpoint, each character giving their take on Oliver, their past with him, and why he did it. From his harsh upbringing in a Catholic boarding school, to a fateful summer in France, to his current success, the reader gets more insight into Oliver’s character and motivations with every chapter. By the end, the reader should understand why he did it. Whether you find him sympathetic or a monster is up to you.

Like many books with this structure, it can get a little repetitive. We read tellings of the same scene from so many viewpoints that the details can wear thin by the second character’s take. Also, the story is full of too-convenient coincidences that stretch belief. Nevertheless, I read it in one sitting and found myself sucked in to Unraveling Oliver the way the best domestic thrillers suck you in. While I still found him absolutely monstrous at the end, I could see a different reader coming around to find him at least pitiable, if not sympathetic. This should appeal to people who like the recent spate of compelling Girl novels (Gone Girl, Girl on the Train, etc). If you’re looking for your next read, try B. A. Paris’ Behind Closed Doors, or, in fact, any of B. A. Paris‘ domestic thriller novels.

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

Book – Ginny Moon is an autistic fourteen-year-old finally living in her “Forever House” with her adoptive parents, Maura and Brian. Abused and neglected by her mother, Ginny had been placed into foster care when she was nine. Ginny works with a therapist, Patrice, to help her set up guidelines for more successful relationships and behavior. She struggles to make sense of her world and rituals and rules help her. When her Forever Parents learn they are expecting a baby, their fears about Ginny’s behavior derail her progress. In the midst of their struggle, Ginny becomes increasingly intent on finding Baby Doll, who she remembers leaving behind in a suitcase when her mother was arrested. With her limited ability to communicate, she attempts to explain about Baby Doll. As Ginny’s story unfolds, we meet her biological family and, through Ginny’s eyes, we begin to understand what she is searching for. This poignant story made me think about how easy it is to jump to conclusions instead of really listening to the meaning behind the words. Ginny’s journey shows that life isn’t easy, being a hero isn’t easy and, most of all, being an outsider isn’t easy.

Beast by Brie Spangler

Book--Ever since the 6th grade, Dylan has been larger than other boys. Now at over 6 ft. tall, improbably hairy, and still growing, 15-year-old Dylan (called Beast by his peers) hides his face under hats and feels trapped in a body that doesn’t match his insides. When his school bans hats, Dylan walks off the edge of the school building and breaks his leg. He claims it was an accident. His orthopedist and his mother don’t agree. They send him to counseling for teenagers with self-harming tendencies, where he meets Jamie. Jamie is beautiful, smart, and funny, just the kind of girl that would impress Dylan’s friends. Because this is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, Dylan starts to shed some of his shallowness and misogyny as he falls in love with her, and begins to let go of his anger at the world. However, when Dylan learns that Jamie is transgender (a fact that she told him when they first met, had he been listening), he freaks out and pulls away from her. Will Dylan be able to get over his knee-jerk transphobia and apologize to Jamie? Will she be able to forgive him? Will they get back together?

Of course they will. But reading about how is the whole fun of it. I really enjoyed reading about Dylan’s journey from crass and callow teenage boy to sensitive young man. Despite being a fairy tale retelling, Beast stands on its own. If you enjoy this one, you may also enjoy other LBGT classic story retellings aimed at young adults (yes, this is a whole genre) such as Ash by Malinda Lo (retells Cinderella), Great by Sara Benincasa (retells The Great Gatsby), and As I Descended (retells Macbeth).

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

Book – After a chance meeting brought them together, Lucy and Owen fell in love.  Raised on the chaos of city life, the couple left New York City in favor of the quiet family-centered Hudson Valley, a small suburb of Beekman.  It’s a health-centered place where you know all your neighbors, and the local moms cook up hot lunch at the schools.  Over the years, the romance and attraction in Lucy and Owen’s relationship has fizzled, as they concentrate on raising their young autistic son, and dealing with the chaos of daily life.

It is on a rare drunken night with friends that the idea first hits them.  Their friends reveal they have begun an open marriage, which shocks Lucy and Owen. As the weekend passes by, however, Lucy and Owen just can’t shake this new knowledge.  Is it really as crazy as it sounds?  In the spur of the moment, they lay out the groundwork and compile a set of strict rules.  They agree on six months, no questions asked, but neither one has any idea how much their lives are about to change

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn was not at all what I expected.  The story follows the relationship of Lucy and Owen, but it also blends in multiple other points of view, looking into a variety of marriages and relationships outside of the main couple. While one obviously expects there to be sexual content when reading about open marriages, I actually found the details to be pretty minimal, with more concentration on the changing family dynamic of Lucy, Owen and their son, as well as other relationship in the story.  I enjoyed this read because it felt very real, like something unfabricated, a glimpse into the life of someone who might actually exist.

 

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

Book – Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett has the most adorable bunny cover I have ever seen by far. But whilst one might expect to find a cute story of an adorable rabbit beneath this cover, we are instead met by death, mourning, and sleepwalking. The back synopsis was insane; there was such an onslaught of information I wasn’t sure I’d be able to follow everything going on when I actually started reading.

Elvis is 11 years old, and her mother has just committed suicide, or so everyone says.  Elvis is skeptical, and thinks something more sinister may be afoot in her mother’s death.  In the wake of her mother’s passing, Elvis is forced to undergo weekly sessions with the school counseling, and begins tracking her journey through the nine stages of grief. Her father mourns by dressing up in her mother’s clothes and wearing her lipstick. Elvis’s older sister, Lizzie unfortunately inherited her mother’s sleepwalking, and it’s quickly growing out of control. In the midst of trying to save her sister from meeting the same ghastly fate of her mother, Elvis works furiously on her mother’s unfinished memoir, and searches for answers into her death.

There is so much going on in this story; it’s dark, a  fair bit depressing, and very quirky. The sleepwalking was a huge aspect of the story, and I was so fascinated by it. Though it wasn’t the sweet story I anticipated from a glance at the cover, this book exceeded my expectations.

Here to Stay by Catherine Anderson

BookHere to Stay by Catherine Anderson is one of my staple romantic novels. Twenty-Eight year old Mandy Pajeck’s life revolves around caring for her younger brother Luke. Luke lost his sight as a young child, in a horrific accident that Mandy blames herself for. Mandy has done everything for the now angsty teenage boy since they were young. With an abusive father, and a mother who abandoned the two siblings, Mindy has always protected her brother and he never has to lift a finger. Luke plays on his sister’s guilt and  has never tried to learn to do anything for himself.

Romance is the furthest thing from Mandy’s mind until she meets hunky Zach Harrigan. Zach’s life used to revolve around parties and fun; he never had a reason to take anything serious. When his life begins to lack the luster it once had, Zach decides to use his expertise of horsemanship to do something meaningful for a change.  He begins to train a miniature horse to become a guide animal for the blind.  When Zach and Mandy cross paths, sparks fly, but Mandy just can’t let go of the past to make room for romance. As the two develop a closer relationship, Zach urges Mandy to confront her past, and the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Could Zach be the one man that can change Mandy’s mind on love? Will she ever be able to move on from her past, and forgive herself for her brother’s blindness? A story of love, loss, and moving on; Here to Stay is chock full of feelings and hope.