Reviewed: We Never Asked for Wings by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

languageofflowers_coverVanessa Diffenbaugh’s debut, The Language of Flowers, made me feel #allthethings. Consequently, I now own the book in paperback and hard cover – and they sit on my shelf right next to the companion guide, A Victorian Flower Dictionary. Even if you judge me, I don’t care. That’s how deep my love for that book went. I blame Anne of Green Gables – I’ve been drawn to orphan stories ever since.

A quick run-down synopsis of the book, from our friends at the publisher:

For fourteen years, Letty Espinosa has worked three jobs around San Francisco to make ends meet while her mother raised her children—Alex, fifteen, and Luna, just six—in their tiny apartment on a forgotten spit of wetlands near the bay. But now Letty’s parents are returning to Mexico, and Letty must step up and become a mother for the first time in her life.
 
Navigating this new terrain is challenging for Letty, especially as Luna desperately misses her grandparents and Alex, who is falling in love with a classmate, is unwilling to give his mother a chance. Letty comes up with a plan to help the family escape the dangerous neighborhood and heartbreaking injustice that have marked their lives, but one wrong move could jeopardize everything she’s worked for and her family’s fragile hopes for the future.

I was nervous to pick up We Never Asked for Wings because of all the reasons above. But I shouldn’t have been. Diffenbaugh is an amazing writer who makes me experience lives I’ve never lived. Her descriptions put me right in the middle of Letty, Alex, and Luna’s apartment. I felt as though I could see the birds Alex watches and the mud-caked Luna playing outside.

Her brilliance is in her characterization – I always care about the characters and that compels me to turn page after page and to avoid the book past a certain hour (otherwise, I’d be up all night reading). However I will say that while The Language of Flowers main character, Victoria, was deeply flawed and broken down by her life circumstances, the main character of this book, Letty, seems to be broken down by her own poor choices. While I understand both motivations, I had less sympathy and didn’t feel as inclined to root for Letty. A few things about the story line troubled me (a few minor spoilers below!):

– When Letty returns to take care of her kids on her own after largely being an absent parent, there’s very little resentment or scrutiny from the kids. Luna’s response might be slightly more understandable since she’s much younger, but Alex’s “good kid” persona wore a little thin in this one area.

– Letty clearly has a problem with alcohol throughout but never seeks treatment or help and works in a bar. Perhaps that’s only my perception or I may have missed something in my eagerness to finish the story–it’s possible that the author didn’t intend this to be an addiction, but merely a statement of coping in the moment. Still, I found some of those scenes (especially – if you’ve read the book – the one with her and Alex near the beginning) horrifying and sad.

– I couldn’t always reconcile the Letty with how she was described. She was an honor student in high school, but someone that driven just gave up on life once an unexpected pregnancy brought her Alex? She made terrible choices with her children but suddenly was the picture of a mother who did things instinctively right? It made for a muddled picture of the main character and I ended up caring about the people in her life more than her.

Bottom line: The quality of writing means that the author has kept my trust enough to read book three in the future. If you’re looking for an engaging, well-paced story with a family dynamic, this would be a good one to read. But if you’re looking to try a book from this author and haven’t read The Language of Flowers, I’d definitely recommend that you pick that book up first.

Reviewed: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

 

Let’s be honest, as much as I’d like to live in a world that is cover-blind, the harsh reality is that my desire to pick a book up increases when cute packaging is involved. (Incidentally, this is also why I consistently leave Target with items that I don’t actually need.)

Even before the book released, I saw ads for Tell Me Three Things everywhere and each time I made a mental note* to put it on my Goodreads “To Read” shelf. And because my reading stack has grown to a height that…shall we say…is no longer structurally sound, I needed an excuse to pick it up right away. The only way forward? A sneaky book club move. I suggested it for our next gathering and smugly moved it to the top of my pile.

But before we get too far, here’s a quick synopsis (if you’re into that kind of thing).

TellMeThreeThings_QuoteAbout the Book:

What do you do when your dad decides that dragging you across the country and inserting you into a different high school ecosystem is the best plan of action? You cautiously accept the friendship of the anonymous guy who promises to help you understand the preppy landscape of foreign-ness that is a Los Angeles private school, of course. 

Still reeling from the loss of her mother and the challenge of navigating a newly combined family unit, Jessie gets an email from SN (Somebody Nobody). Homesick and desperately trying to make her way in this new world, Jessie takes a leap of faith and accepts his help. Amongst advice about the best way to interact with her new classmates, they begin to build a solid friendship by exchanging answers to the prompt: tell me three things…

But who is SN? And will an in-person meeting make their friendship stronger or destroy it altogether?

Let me tell you three reasons why I loved this book (because that seems the appropriate thing to do):

(1.) It reminded me of Ann Brashares’ The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Just like the Sisterhood books, this book was deeply grounded. Far from a frivolous teen book, the issues Jessie deals with: the death of her mother, tentatively forging the bonds of new friendships, adapting to a different school, trying to assimilate into a family that doesn’t feel quite right, and processing through the tangle of emotions that all these things realistically require of her…well, let’s just say that I shed a few tears. Okay, maybe one-fourth of a tissue box’s worth of tears.

(2.) It delivers on the premise. Much like Meg Cabot before her, the author is amazingly skilled at using the email/IM plot device to move the story forward. There was just enough light-hearted banter and high school shenanigans to keep the balance of a good YA novel. The highest praise I can offer is that I never felt like the book was heavy-handed or trying too hard. In fact, I found myself smiling like an idiot in public places while reading. Now I need to do some serious damage control to re-establish my street cred.

(3.) It’s well-written. That might sound like a simple compliment, but I think this book was brilliantly paced, expertly woven together, and insightful as heck. I never use a highlighter in fiction books, but I found myself marking a few lines along the way.

“How strange, I think, to be called both ugly and beautiful, two words I rarely hear, in the same day. The former because most people are neither that mean nor that truthful, the latter because it has never applied to me…Hot seems to be about guys liking you. Beautiful is about liking how you look.”

“My mom will not be there to nurse me back from this. There is no longer a person in the world who is interested in everything I have to say just by virtue of the fact that it comes out of my mouth.”

“When my mom died, Scarlett and I sat on my bed, and before she started the full-time job of distracting me from the pain–which she performed admirably and with such skill I never even noticed how much work she must have put into it–she said the only thing that made sense at the time, maybe the only thing that has made any sense since: Just so you know, I realize that what happened is not in any way okay, but I think we’re going to have to pretend like it is.”

Bottom line: I don’t need to tell you three things – if you’re looking for a book to break a reading slump and love a good YA coming of age story (with a really cute cover), I have one single piece of advice: get your hands on this book and read it. Posthaste.

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*The sad reality is that my mental notes are a lot like those cute sticky notes that you can buy in the dollar section at Target – they have more style than substance.

Reviewed: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

TheNightCircus_CoverFirst, a quick book summary courtesy of the publisher:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.

Let’s be honest, there’s a lot to love about Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. The author does an extraordinary job of creating a vivid, one-of-a-kind setting with a touch of gothic flair. The mental imagery the words created are striking and at times I could almost smell the described scents of the night circus or taste the treats the food carts were selling. This, in my opinion, is a huge feat considering that this whole world has its roots solely in the imagination of the author. On that point, I must concede the brilliance of this book.

Looking a little deeper into the plot, however, the magic faded a bit for me. The characters seemed almost interchangeable…all lofty, “magical”, and confident. Just outside of my reach, which in turn made me care very little about them. The effort was very clearly put on the imaginative creation of a world with little regard paid to those inhabiting it.

Was this book unlike anything I’ve read? Yes. The Night Circus took me to another place while I was inside it’s pages, and that’s the charm that it offers a reader.

Bottom line: If you enjoy fantastical settings and get lost in beautiful prose, this book is for you. You’ll love it. If you need character development to make the story one worth reading, you may want to skip it.