Saving Francesca

Rating:
Author: Melina Marchetta
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: Mar. 2003 (re-read May 2019)

This was super enjoyable to read for the second time and I actually enjoyed it more on my re-read than I did the first time I read it. I’ve been dying to read her newest book, The Place on Dalhousie, but it’s not available at any bookstores in Canada or on the kindle store, so I finally broke down and ordered a copy from Book Depository. After ordering it, I discovered that it actually includes some of the same characters from Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son.

Saving Francesca was Marchetta’s second book, published in 2003, and The Piper’s Son was published several years after that. I believe all 3 books involve some of the same characters, but could all be read as stand-alones. The Piper’s Son is the only remaining Marchetta book that I haven’t read, so I decided to take the opportunity to re-read Francesca and Piper before I read the newest book.

I liked Saving Francesca on my first re-through, but it didn’t stand out to me. I think this is because I read it right after the first time I read On the Jellicoe Road. Jellicoe Road is one of my favourite books of all time, so after reading it I was enthusiastic to try out some of Marchetta’s other books, but Francesca couldn’t really compete with Jellicoe, so I didn’t rate it as highly. I’ve probably read Jellicoe 4-5 times since the first time I read it, but this was my first time re-reading Francesca and I really liked it a lot more. Now that I’ve had the time to separate it from Jellicoe Road and view it on its own merits (rather than just comparing it to Jellicoe), it’s actually a really good book.

Saving Francesca is about 16 year old Francesca Spinelli and her family. Francesca has always had a really close relationship with her mother and then one day, her mother basically shuts down and fails to get out of bed. She suffers from depression, which is something Francesca has never really been exposed to and struggles to understand. At the same time, Francesca has just started a new school and she misses her old friends and doesn’t feel like she belongs at her new school.

Even though none of her other books have been as great as Jellicoe Road, I have always loved Marchetta’s writing style and characterization. I would absolutely classify her as one of my favourite authors and even though I’ve outgrown a lot of YA, I don’t feel like I’ll ever outgrow Marchetta’s work. I love the way she writes teenagers and friendships. I don’t know how to describe it, but when I read her books, I feel like I’m walking into a world already fully realized. She is great at Show, Don’t Tell, and I never feel like I’m being introduced to a story, so much as just becoming immersed in it.

Her characters are so vibrant and I love the way they relate to one another. Melina is the master of the “from-hate-to-love” relationships and I love how she develops friendships in her books. Saving Francesca is a coming of age story as well as a book about mental illness. I mostly liked her approach to mental illness, with the exception of the aversion to taking medication for it. There shouldn’t be any stigma associated with taking medication for mental illness and wish it would be normalized more in books. Many people suffer from many different mental illnesses and medication really helps them. Francesca’s family was pretty adverse to it in this book, which was too bad because I think drugs could have helped Mia get back on her feet a lot faster.

But I did like her other themes about being there for one another and that having good days doesn’t mean that you’re better, but that having bad days also doesn’t mean that you’re not okay. The characters gave each other space to work through their issues and I liked that Francesca understood that while there maybe wasn’t a lot that she could do for her mother, simply being there might be enough.

One thing that really makes a book a winner for me is when an author writes well developed secondary characters. I loved all the secondary characters in this book, especially the teenagers. Every single one of them was flawed, yet they all had traits that made them special and likable. I loved Tara’s spirit and Siobhan’s unapologetic approach to life and Justine’s goodness and Thomas Mackee’s nonchalance and Jimmy’s soft understanding and support. I even kind of liked Will this time around, who I definitely didn’t on my first read through. He’s a bit of a shitty character, but I was willing to forgive him for his mistakes this time around and appreciated that he was able to grow and make choices outside of the rigid plans he set for himself.

This is a short book and subtle. I liked the honest depiction of mental illness, but as usual with Marchetta’s books, what really made it stand out was the characters. I love a good character driven book and she never lets me down. Can’t wait to read The Piper’s Son and The Place on Dalhousie!

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With the Fire on High

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Elizabeth Acevedo
Genres: Young Adult
Pub. date: May 7, 2019 (read Apr. 2019)

I have been struggling with YA lately, but I really enjoyed Elizabeth Acevedo’s second novel, With the Fire on High. I loved her debut, The Poet X, last year, so I was thrilled to get my hands on an advance copy for her new book. I’ll admit I was a little disappointed when I realized this book wasn’t written in prose, but not for too long because it was well written and I enjoyed the story.

With the Fire on High tells the story of high school student, Emoni Santiago, as she finishes her senior year and tries to decide what path to take upon graduation. The catch is that Emoni was raised by her abuela after the death of her own mother in childbirth and is now a mom herself to her 2-year old daughter Emma. Emoni has always struggled in school, but with the help of her grandmother, she is able to complete high school. She feels pressure to pursue post-secondary, but is unsure how she would manage or pay for more schooling and still take care of her daughter. Plus, her great passion lies in cooking and the only kind of schooling she can see pursuing, is culinary school.

To her amazement, her high school offers a culinary class in her final year under the fine arts credit and she signs up for the course. Emoni has always followed her intuition in the kitchen and she struggles with discipline when following recipes. The best part of the course though, is that it includes a one-week trip to Spain at the end of the semester. Emoni would love to go on the trip, but she’s not sure if she can afford it or make it work with her daughter. But she is determined to at least try!

This is a pretty straightforward novel, with nothing too surprising, but I loved the exploration of what it means to be a teen mom. I’ve read lots of YA books about bad decisions that lead to unwanted pregnancies, but I can’t think of a book set in modern day time that starts at this point in the story. Emoni has already come to terms with being a mother and all that it means. She is a great mom to Babygirl, but she struggles with the daily challenges of being a teenager while simultaneously trying to take care and provide for her daughter. She is mature and has risen above the criticisms of her peers, yet she is still undoubtedly a teenager in some of the ways that she reacts to her experiences. She’s not threatened by classmates that look down on her, yet still deeply insecure when she is challenged by her cooking teacher.

The book has a romance, but it’s a secondary story-line. Senior year is a confusing time for any teenager and I liked the exploration of how much more confusing it was for Emoni. She wants to continue to dream, but is faced with the realities of her circumstances. Can she really go to culinary school with a 2-year old daughter? How will she continue to earn money to pay for both school and life? She is a dreamer, but realistic. I thought that the book provided a good look at the power of dreams and having the courage to go after them, but also understanding that our dreams can change and that it’s not always going to be a direct path to achieve them. There are some things that are worth sacrificing for and just because you say ‘no’ or ‘not now’, it doesn’t mean you can’t continue to work towards those dreams.

Overall this is a lighthearted book, but it’s a lighthearted book with depth. It was enjoyable to read and Emoni was an inspiring character! Thanks to my friend for picking this one up for me at a book fair and thanks to HarperCollins Canada for the early copy. With the Fire on High is scheduled for release on May 7, 2019.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean

Rating: 
Author: Jenny Han
Genres: Young Adult
Pub date: May 2017
Series: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3

Netflix just announced that they will be making a sequel to All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, so I decided to finish off the year with the final book in this trilogy. I loved the first book, and while I enjoyed the second book as well, I thought it was a bit unnecessary, so I wasn’t sure if I would read the third book or not, but I’m glad I did decide to finish off this series.

I had similar thoughts on this book as I had to the second book in that I still think the first book works as a standalone and is the strongest of the series, but I do think each book added something of value even though they weren’t really necessary. I actually kind of loved John Ambrose Mclaren in the second book (Yes, I still love Peter K) and I liked that Han explored Lara Jean’s relationships with both boys. Initially, I found the final book really frustrating because I thought Lara Jean kind of disappeared into her relationship with Peter, but it ended up kind of being the whole point of the book and I liked that it explored the struggles of heading off to college and balancing relationships with your own personal development.

Always and Forever, Lara Jean is about Lara Jean’s final year of high school and making plans to go to college. Her and Peter are still in love, but in the wake of so many new decisions and the reality that life rarely goes the way we expect, they are forced to make some difficult decisions about their relationship and learn about the way they communicate with each other.

I don’t really know how to talk about the rest of the book without spoilers, but there are a few things I want to discuss, so I’d advise to stop reading here if you haven’t yet finished the series.

Like I said, initially I was really frustrated with Lara Jean in this book. She gets so caught up in her Dad’s wedding and in her and Peter having the perfect future that she makes some really poor decisions. I think this is totally realistic to how teenagers act, especially when they’re in love and being forced to make difficult decisions about their futures, but Lara Jean has always been so focused on her personal growth and achievements that I was disappointed to see her checking out on college. She doesn’t get into her dream college, so instead of embracing the change and her new school, she emotionally checks out on all things college related, despite her sister Margot advising her to make the most of her first year of college.

Lara Jean and Peter are in an impossible position because in all likelihood, they probably will eventually break up, but I liked the journey they went on together. When Lara Jean gets into a better college, she starts embracing the idea of change and the reality that her and Peter just won’t be able to see each other that much and that maybe transferring schools isn’t the right decision for her. Teenagers can be rash in their decisions, but I liked that she finally was able to prioritize her happiness as well as Peters. It’s easy to disappear in a relationship and as teenagers, they are really too young for either to be thinking about sacrificing college for the other. I also liked the dichotomy Han created between Margot’s decision to break up with Josh and Lara Jean’s decision to stay with Peter. Both women are right in their decision as there is no correct answer and each did what they thought best for them and their relationship. It’s a bit of a bittersweet ending, but I thought it was realistic.

While I only rated one of these books 4 stars, I still think this is a great series for teenagers. Lara Jean is quite unlike a lot of teen protagonists I’ve read and while I know some readers think she’s too immature, I think she is just right. As someone who was a bit of a goody-goody in high school and has a great relationship with her sister, I could really relate to Lara Jean and I loved how supportive her family was. Her sisters added so much to what could have been a vapid novel about teen love and I really liked how they always prioritized family and personal growth.

Fence

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author: C.S. Pacat & Johanna the Mad
Genres: Graphic Novel, Young Adult, Fiction
Pub date: July 2018 (read Nov. 2018)

Disclaimer: This is a review for the first 3 volumes. However, I’ve kept it spoiler free so read on!

Why is this so good?!?! I really don’t understand, it’s just a comic about a couple of pretentious boys trying to make their high school’s fencing team, and yet I got so into it! Usually I just wait for the volumes to be released, but after reading the first volume, I had to go in search of the individual issues because it was just so good! (and I knew I would forget who all the boys were) I just finished issue #12, which encompasses the first 3 volumes, I’m just going to review them all here.

Fence is ultimately about two freshman fencers, Nicholas and Seiji, but it features an extended cast of secondary characters. Nicholas is new on the fencing scene and just really wants to be a fencer like his estranged father was. Nicholas is lacking in technique because of his lack of training, but he is very fast and has natural instinct. In contrast, Seiji has been fencing his whole life and is very technically skilled. He’s ranked 2nd nationally to fencing all-star Jesse.

Everyone expected Seiji to go to Exton, an elite fencing academy, but at the start of term, he shows up at Kings Row, expecting to win one of the 3 coveted spots on the fencing team, even though he’s only a freshman. Nicholas has won a fencing scholarship to Kings Row, but he’s only allowed to stay if he makes the team. In a surprise twist of fate, Nicholas and Seiji are roommates and quickly become rivals.

The entire first 3 volumes are just about the tryouts to make the fencing team. The boys compete in 24 matches and the top 3 ranked fencers make the school team to compete against Exton. It shouldn’t be so interesting to read 12 issues about high school fencers competing to make a school fencing team (like who actually cares about fencing these days?), but it is extremely readable and enthralling. Fence has a great extended cast that explores the rivalries and relationships that exist between all the fencers, what it means to be a good fencer, and a good sport, and how our familial relationships and support affects our abilities and psyche. There’s lots of drama between the fencers, but there’s also camaraderie. You come to like each and every one of the fencers (and the coach) and we start getting the back stories of some of the fencers.

My assumption is that after the team is established in the first 3 volumes, Pacat will expand the series to include Jesse (the #1 ranked fencer) and the rivalries between Exton and Kings Row. The first 3 volumes were fantastic and I can’t wait to see where this series goes in the future!

Neverworld Wake

Rating: ⭐
Author: Marisha Pessl
Genres: Young Adult, Mystery, Science Fiction
Pub Date: June 2018 (read Sept. 2018 on Audible)

I finished Neverworld Wake a few days ago as an audiobook and I’ve been thinking about it over the last few days and I’ve been struggling to come to a conclusion about how I felt about it. I decided I didn’t really like it, but then when I sat down to write the review I discovered that there were elements to the story that I did really enjoy. So I think I’m landing on a borderline 3 star review.

Neverworld Wake has a great science fiction concept. It brings together a group of friends who have somewhat lost touch in the year since graduating high school at Darrow. Our main character Beatrice was once very close with her group of 6 friends in high school, but after the death of her boyfriend, Jim, at the end of senior year, she cuts herself off from the rest of her friends. Jim’s death is marked down by the police as a suicide, but Beatrice and her friends still have a lot of questions about what really happened to Jim. They reunite one night a year later and a car accident catapults them into an event known as the neverworld wake. A old man appears and informs the 6 friends that they will be forced to relive the same day over and over again until they can all agree on a decision to a specific course of action (I won’t explicitly state what decision they must make to avoid spoilers).

I’ll talk first about what I liked. Most of all I liked that the story had two key elements driving the plot. There’s the Neverworld Wake, which is a fascinating concept in itself and is what makes this a science fiction novel. The 6 friends are forced to relive the same day over and over again. They could do whatever they like, initiate any sort of consequence, but at the end of each day, time will reset for them at the start of the same day. Whatever sequence of events they set in course during the day are effectively rendered moot at the end of the day and they are forced to start over. It raises a lot of interesting questions about human behaviour and how a group of individuals will react when faced with a dire decision. In this case, it involves a lot of frustration at the beginning and then a certain amount of avoidance by each of the characters as they struggle to come to any kind of consensus.

The second element of the story is the mystery of what happened to Jim. Beatrice was torn apart by his death and is really a wreck. All of the friends seems to be harbouring secrets about what happened the night Jim went missing and when they fail to come to a consensus to escape the neverworld wake, they decide to start investigating the circumstances of Jim’s death. I thought both the mystery element and the science fiction element were great and integrating both of them together made for a much more dynamic story. Honestly, either of these elements could have been a story on it’s on.

What I didn’t like was that for what should have been a really fast paced and dynamic thriller, I was kind of bored. What can be a strength for a novel (integrating 2 different storylines) can also work as a weakness if the author fails to do justice to both storylines, which is what I think happened in Neverworld Wake. Pessl had two great concepts that I wanted to see developed, but I think she failed to develop either in sufficient detail. The concept of reliving the same day over and over again raises so many questions about group dynamics. It’s a Lord of the Flies type scenario as we watch a group of individuals try to come to terms with what’s happening to them so that they can escape, but ultimately start to fall apart and descend into anarchy. There are no consequences for these teenagers. No matter what they do, time will reset for them at the end of the day. As a result, some characters lose hope and start to fall a part, while others are incentivised to figure out how to escape.

The friends research into what happened to Jim serves a similar purpose. For some it provides much needed answers and an opportunity for closure, while for others, it exposes truths they’d rather remain hidden. Both elements are great, but for the first half of the book, I struggled to figure out how they were related and there was no real urgency driving the story. I felt like the characters desperation at being stuck in the neverworld would drive a lot of action, but it actually stalls it in the beginning with an incapacity of any of the characters to move forward. I was surprisingly bored. I thought the main point of the story was going to be to examine this Lord of the Flies type scenario, but then it ended up really being about what happened to Jim. I feel like the author had two great ideas, but didn’t really know how to execute either.

Ultimately, I wanted to like this, but at the end of the day it fell a little flat for me.