We Are Okay

We Are OkayWe Are Okay by Nina LaCour

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“We Are Okay” explores grief, discovering a dark secret about someone, and transitions in life. Heavy stuff. In fact, I was worried I would hate this book because I tend to read for entertainment not to be confronted with topics such as these. However, Nina LaCour weaves characters, emotions, and a mysterious plot into a very good read. The book is organized in which we start in the present and then flashback to the past until towards the end we’ve basically caught up to the present again. For me, this helped me try and figure the pieces out and I felt it kept the book focused not just on reactions to events, but on the events themselves.

Marin and Mabel are best friends but have recently had a death that has impacted their friendship. We start with Marin preparing to host Mabel in her college dorm room. Throughout this visit, we get flashbacks to the past that explain why Marin is grieving and feeling the way she is, and why Mabel wants to be there for her too. While there’s some heavy topics, it was in such a way that I was feeling for the two women without feeling like I was being sucked into it too.

Even though it’s a heavy book, topically, I do recommend this book. I felt it was about the power of friendships and having people in your life to support you and not give up on you, even when you’ve given up on yourself.

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Arena

Arena (Arena, #1)Arena by Holly Jennings

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Arena” is set in a future Los Angeles in which virtual gaming has overtaken live (real?) sports as the main attraction. This new virtual gaming takes VR to a new reality. The players have to actually workout and train because the sensors that take them to the virtual world carry over the players’ actual abilities. If you sprain your ankle in the real world, it’s still going to be weak in the virtual. There’s also a crossover from the virtual to the real. While dying in the virtual world doesn’t actually kill you, you can still feel pain from the wounds inflicted in the virtual battles. The protagonist, Kali Ling, plays for one of the top teams in the RAGE tournaments which is basically an epic battle of capture the flag, just with towers for flags and actual weapons.

One of the main takeaways from this book is the idea of having to distinguish between virtual and real. It’s a topic that I believe has become prescient to our times. While we don’t quite have virtual games, we are close to it. Just look at the League of Legends championships that book stadiums around the world. Even on a smaller level, think about how people ignore the real for the virtual. Instead of enjoying food for food’s sake, people are more interested in Instagraming it. Instead of enjoying a vacation it’s now about recording every moment of it. One of the conflicts that arises in the book is what happens when you lose your grasp on the real and find yourself feeling “whole” in the virtual. There’s also sorts of problems that arise.

The author, Holly Jennings, does a great job of making the reader also question what is real and virtual. Sometimes when we’re in the virtual and come back to the real, I was wanting more of the virtual. By the end of the book I realized this wasn’t about immersing us in the virtual but giving us a peak into what these athletes go through. I’m looking forward to reading the sequels to this book because the world and the characters are interesting and complex. It’s a good read.

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Future Home of the Living God

Future Home of the Living GodFuture Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Future Home of the Living God” is told in an epistolary style set in a future U.S. in which nature is turning on itself and going through some sort of evolution. Animals are changing into new species and for some reason most women are not able to get pregnant, carry a pregnancy to term, or deliver a baby that can live. There’s a small group of women who are able to achieve a viable pregnancy and this becomes the main conflict for our protagonist, Cedar. Intermixed with this ongoing evolution (de-evolution?), Cedar is discovering her roots. She grew up in an adopted household in Minneapolis with White parents, but she is of Ojibwe heritage. Because she’s pregnant, she wants to meet her biological parents to find out if there’s any genetic issues she should be aware of.

The plot unfolds as diary entries Cedar writes based on her experiences with the issues I’ve mentioned above. The diary is something she compiling to give to her baby. One the one hand, it made the book stand out telling us the story from a limited, disjointed chronology. On the other hand, it made me frustrated and didn’t pay out the way I was expecting. By keeping the diary there’s a very personal feel to the book and it makes an empathetic read. You know all about Cedar and what she’s thinking or feeling. It makes us feel like we are the baby she was writing to. On the other hand, because it’s such a limited perspective, there’s things happening in Cedar’s world that didn’t make sense to me, but because they did for her, she doesn’t take the time to explain them. It’s like watching a movie of Cedar’s life, while she’s standing right in front of you. You get to see some of the world, but the main focus is really just on Cedar herself.

One of the themes I appreciated about this book is that we get to experience Cedar’s Ojibwe family as people. I’ve said it before but I don’t think there’s a good representation of Native Americans in literature. Too often they’re portrayed as victims and something that White liberals should pity and cry over. In “Future Home” there’s no victimization. Cedar and her family use their situation and do what they can in their chaotic world, and do it very well.

I enjoyed this book very much, it just didn’t live up to what I was expecting from the beginning. It’s definitely a very unique book and great for book clubs as it spawns a lot of discussion.

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Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat (Creekwood, #2)Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“Leah on the Offbeat” is the “sequel” to “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.” It doesn’t take the plot forward so much as delves into the lives of some of the other characters from the first book. Leah had a minor role in “Simon” as his best friend (although for a best friend, she didn’t appear in a lot of the book). In her titular book, we get to see her conflicts as she feels pressure to come out as bi, now that Simon has come out and the world didn’t end.

The problem is that Leah is one of those people who doesn’t process conflict or adversity well. Instead, when things don’t go the way she wants them to she goes with the scorched earth method and shuts everything and everyone down. She also has a very low self-esteem so she never believes anyone would want to do good things for her and assumes people are lying when they compliment her.

I read this book in one sitting, not because it was engrossing, but because it was like watching a reality show. It was just interesting that wanted to know how it ended, but I stayed for the drama. And there was a lot of it! It almost becomes comical at the end. Leah has a crush on one of the members of the friend group and she does not handle it well. By the end of the book there’s hints this person might reciprocate her feelings but it seems so orchestrated and convenient that it doesn’t feel sincere. Then there’s a whole manic pixie girl trope that shows up and it just spun out of control.

We may have had a friend in our lives who is like Leah. That friend was probably not always easy to be around, but was very loyal. They may like this book and can relate to a lot of it. You, however, may be too triggered to really enjoy the book.

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Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your NameCall Me by Your Name by André Aciman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elio is the son of two professors. His father is a famous historian who hires a summer graduate student to join the family on their Italian Riviera estate (who wouldn’t want that gig) and help sort research and correspondence. As the book opens, Elio is preparing to welcome the newest intern, Oliver. Oliver arrives and Elio gives him a cool reception. The frigidity between the two continues for a period before they finally confront each other. Suffice it to say there’s an attraction between the two. There’s no clear explanation why they treated each other with cold shoulders, but in Elio’s case it’s probably because he’s seventeen. As for Oliver he’s twenty-four and should’ve been more mature.

Let’s take a moment and address the elephant in the room. Oliver is twenty-four and Elio is seventeen. Due to events that transpire later in the book (I won’t go into details in order not to spoil the book or the movie), but this age gap made me uncomfortable. I never felt that Oliver was taking advantage of Elio. However, I do think that Oliver, as the adult in the room, should’ve done more to help Elio process his feelings. Instead, Oliver tends to let Elio figure it out on his own. The problem is, Elio is seventeen!! As Elio is the narrator, we get his first-person limited perspective and it’s clear he’s both scared and curious about how he feels towards Oliver.

While the movie did it better when it comes to one of the most powerful speeches in the book, there’s an important moment where Elio’s father has a talk with him that makes Elio realize, his father knew what was going on the whole time. The father never once mentions the word “gay”, although there’s room for interpretation of what he’s suggesting, but instead he cautions Elio to not generalize about his life based on this one moment. I feel this is a powerful message because too often society is quick to label people. But who at seventeen could say that she or he fit into perfect boxes? Instead, the father encourages Elio to let what happens over the summer be a moment in time and process the good and bad that comes a long with it.

This was a frustrating read in places because of its limited point of view, but the idea behind the text is powerful. It addresses what happens when, during out teenage years, we first encounter the tricky emotion of desire. This is very psychological in parts and I won’t lie and say there’s things that Oliver and Elio do in the name of love that seem pretty far out there, but the author handles it in such a way that it doesn’t stain the rest of the text. There’s also a layer of culture thrown in as several languages are spoken by the characters and the setting of events shifts between places in Italy and the U.S. The cultural elements tend to temper the psychological elements and makes for an artistic tone.

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Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda (Creekwood, #1)Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Simon is a junior in high school and early on we learn that he’s feeling isolated and lonely because he’s gay, hasn’t come out to anyone, and is looking to find a community where he can feel like he fits in with who he is. Right around this point in the novel, a post comes up on the school’s unofficial Tumblr page from a use by the name of Blue who’s expressing the same idea of being gay, not out, and feeling alone and isolated. Simon creates a username, Jacques, and so begins a correspondence between Blue and Jacques. Neither one knows who the other is, although Simon tries to guess who it is. Intermixed with this coming-out, love story, is a major plot of homophobia, black mail, and cyber-bullying.

I’ll admit I saw the movie first, which was so good I decided to read the book. I won’t do a movie review here, but suffice it to say, the movie was better. There are several elements of the book that I felt were important for the book’s audience. The primary element that stood out was that Simon breaks a lot of stereotypes. In breaking stereotypes I feel like the book is furthering the representation of LGBT+ community and in YA I feel that breaking stereotypes helps young adults feel like they have a place in the world. The second element I appreciated is that Simon never plays a victim even though some very terrible things happen to him. While he’s not stoic, he faces the challenges head on. At the same time we see that it’s not easy to fight back against bullies and homophobia.

Some issues I had with the book is that Simon can come across as callous at worst or just oblivious at best. Yes, he has a lot going on, but he lets all of this get in the way of his friends, two of whom he’s known for a long time. It’s not til the end of the book that he’s also confronted with the fact that he’s not a perfect, but when he goes to make amends, he dials it in so much it’s almost pointless. I don’t know if this is problem with the writing or whether he’s just written that way to show that some people are just this way.

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Homegoing

HomegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read “Homegoing” as part of my library’s book club. I didn’t finish it in time for the book club meeting, but I had heard good things about it so I wanted to make sure I fit this into my reading schedule. I ended up reading it on a road trip, which helped me enjoy this book more than if I read this in bits and pieces.

“Homegoing” is the story of two half-sisters, neither knowing of the other, who’s families are affected by the slave trade in what is now Ghana. One sister stays in Africa and the other ends up in what will become the United States. This is a novel about a family and as such, each chapter is the next generation’s point of view and alternates between each of the sisters’s families.

It took me a few chapters to adjust to this format, but in the end it really felt like the book was moving forward. While I wasn’t sure what to think of meeting new characters each chapter, it ended helping me connect to the characters because I was looking to see how their lives played out in their children’s chapters.

The older I’ve become, the more I realize that history isn’t as distant as it may appear in history books. This book shows that perfectly. One decision in one generation can have consequences for generations to come. I felt that the reality in this book wasn’t overwhelming even though there’s some tough events that happen. In Yaa Gyasi’s hands, the plot doesn’t shy away from these events, but it doesn’t feel like these events are JUST meant to shock the audience. One of the characters in the more modern chapters has an English teacher that talks about books that we can feel inside of us. This is one of those books for me.

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One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories

One More Thing: Stories and Other StoriesOne More Thing: Stories and Other Stories by B.J. Novak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“One More Thing” by B.J. Novak is a funny, dark, cynical, deep, well-written collection of short stories. I highly recommend listening to the audiobook because several famous comedians/celebrities and Novak himself read the stories.

While there’s a grab bag of different tones throughout the stories, there’s several stories that have a real grit to them. While sometimes this grit is housed in some absurd scenarios, there’s no mistaking that there’s some truth behind them. There’s not a lot that made me stop and think, but the ones that did were definitely worth pondering.

One of the stories that stands out to me is “We’ve got to do something about Willie.” The set up is that a group of male friends in their post-college life are trying to establish themselves in their careers and adult lives. One of the friends, Willie, appears to be living the good-life a little too hard. His instagram pics show a guy who’s prone to partying hard and seems to have punched his ticket to alcoholism. The other guys in the group decide to stage an intervention and lets just say it doesn’t go as planned. It’s a harsh reminder that social media doesn’t reflect someone’s real life, for better or worse. Also, check in on your friends from time to time in person.

I recommend this book because it shows that literature can be fun, it can be serious, and it can be all of them at the same time.

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The Martian Chronicles

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury was originally written as separate short stories. After being submitted to his publisher, the publisher told Bradbury to connect the short stories into a cohesive collection about the planet Mars and its subsequent colonization of the planet.

Each year I teach “There Will Come Soft Rain” by Bradbury and until reading “The Martian Chronicles” I had no idea the two were related. Granted, the inclusion of “Soft Rain” in the “Chronicles” is abstract at best. In fact, it really could’ve been excluded without impacting anything. However, it added something to a reading of “Soft Rain” in the context of the entire “Chronicles” story arch.

The first piece in the “Chronicles” irritated me to know end. The characters felt flat and stereotyped. There was a tone that had the same effect of nails scratching a chalk board. I worried that I was going to hate the whole collection if they were anything like this one. Luckily it was an outlier and I actually loved the book as a whole. While there a few pieces that stood out to me, so many of them blend together that unless I had the book with me, I can’t distinguish one from another.

Two surprising topics that Bradbury tackles is American exceptionalism and racism. I wasn’t expecting Bradbury to address these subjects, which is why I was surprised. He tackles both adroitly if not in a very open and honest manner that makes it uncomfortable in a good way. Because of this and the entertainment factor of reading the collection as a whole, I would recommend this book. I don’t think it should be as overshadowed by “Fahrenheit 451” as much as it is. “The Chronicles” makes me want to read more of Bradbury’s canon.

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Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our FeetBlack Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A while back, I had read several of the Black Panther issues that were written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. They were interesting but somewhat confusing because it felt like they were picking up from some previous work and it wasn’t clear where they were headed. Since then I’ve seen the movie and Coates has written more issues, which alongwith the previous issues, have been compiled in this volume.

I have a better understanding of what’s happening in Coates rendition of Wakanda now that there’s a more complete story arch. Reading the first several editions is like reading the first third of a book and not knowing what coming next. “A Nation Under Our Feet” at least completes some of the conflicts, projects us into the future, and ties all of the issues together.

The movie and these comic books have little to nothing in common as far as the plot is concerned. The only cross over is the setting and the characters. I’m wondering how much Infinity Wars will bring the movie franchise around to the graphic novels or if they are going to go down separate paths. I will say that having seen the movie it helped ground me in a more solid understanding of Wakanda and Wakandan society. The graphic novels drop you into Wakanda without giving you much explanation of the setting and that also left me confused on my earlier read. Now, however, I felt more grounded in their society and culture and was better able to understand some of the conflicts and motivations.

If you liked the movie and are interested in knowing more about the characters, I would recommend this volume. Just be aware that where the movie is and where this volume begins are two very different things.

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