Review: Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Echo After Echo by Amy Rose Capetta

Genre: YA contemporary/mystery

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication date: October 10, 2017

Synopsis:

echo after echoDebuting on the New York stage, Zara is unprepared—for Eli, the girl who makes the world glow; for Leopold, the director who wants perfection; and for death in the theater.

Zara Evans has come to the Aurelia Theater, home to the visionary director Leopold Henneman, to play her dream role in Echo and Ariston, the Greek tragedy that taught her everything she knows about love. When the director asks Zara to promise that she will have no outside commitments, no distractions, it’s easy to say yes. But it’s hard not to be distracted when there’s a death at the theater—and then another—especially when Zara doesn’t know if they’re accidents, or murder, or a curse that always comes in threes. It’s hard not to be distracted when assistant lighting director Eli Vasquez, a girl made of tattoos and abrupt laughs and every form of light, looks at Zara. It’s hard not to fall in love. In heart-achingly beautiful prose, Amy Rose Capetta has spun a mystery and a love story into an impossible, inevitable whole—and cast lantern light on two girls, finding each other on a stage set for tragedy.

**I received an eARC copy of this from Negalley in exchange for an honest review.**

I excitedly requested Echo After Echo because I’d been looking forward to it; I’ve gotten into theater a lot lately (though not quite in an actor way) and haven’t seen many fictional books about drama kids, which hasn’t been helpful since I’m currently trying to capture some of that community in my own writing. Furthermore, a female/female love story featuring a bi girl always perks my interest.

So, I had the contemporary mindset going in, the genre I read mostly. But oh man, is this a mystery story, and a good one. The atmosphere is creepy from the beginning–I mean, Zara finds a dead body when she first arrives at the theater! And almost everyone in the theater is weird and mysterious–or, at least, not very friendly at first, including the creepy famous director, Leopold, who can get away with way too much power abuse because he’s “brilliant.” He also has visions, and coupled with the theater’s curse, I wondered if there was something supernatural going on. But because of Zara and Eli’s budding relationship, the mystery doesn’t take the forefront in the middle, so it doesn’t drag or rely solely on its (well-constructed) plot, constantly asking you to question it. And then they seem to figure it out, but…it isn’t what it seems. Which was AMAZING because I did not expect the level of complexity to the mystery in a book I regarded as a contemporary–and that more or less tricks you into believing you’re reading one in the middle.

But aside from the mystery, Zara/Eli is written with great amounts of suspense and swoon, keeping them apart for just the right time to keep the page turning without growing exhausting. It’s established early on that Zara and Eli like girls (though Eli doesn’t know Eli does for a while), and that Zara’s dated and kissed boys, too. So this wasn’t a discovery story in that respect, which tend to dominate LGBTQ stories (albeit for a reason–but it’s not the be-all-end-all). Yet, Zara isn’t completely figured out yet; she tries to come out to her family and also says “I’m bisexual” when she’s absolutely sure. THE WORD! It used the word, even when it was easy to infer! (Bi people always have to come out over and over again, or else they’re assumed to be either gay or straight.) Also, isn’t it great there’s queer representation in different genres (mystery in this case) from the usual contemporaries?

Echo After Echo is written in third person omniscient, with different chapters centering on different characters, although certainly Zara is focused on the most. This allowed for plenty of insight into the other characters’ psyches, preventing them from being weird types. Additionally, I just really liked the writing–there were quite a few turns of phrases I highlighted. (I would give examples, but ARCs are not final so we can’t quote from them!)

The theater was a refreshing (albeit dark and mysterious setting); it was nice seeing a YA book where the teenage characters are not in high school. Zara did apply to colleges to attend after she finishes her run in the play, and certainly not everyone can be a working artist at the age, but it was a great glimpse into that life.

I honestly have few negative things to say. I began to wish Adrien had more depth than the shallowness and awareness of fan-pleasing you’d expect from a young, hot male movie star, but then I was pleasantly surprised with more backstory and comments on how he stumbled into the business and how fame affected his life and relationships.

Now I need to get a finished, physical copy for my future classroom…

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Review: They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

Genre: YA speculative fiction/contemporary (feels more like the latter than a SFF story)

Publisher: Harper Teen

Release Date: September 5, 2017 (see what they did there??)

Synopsis:

On September 5, a little after midnight, Death-Cast calls Mateo Torrez and Rufus Emeterio to give them some bad news: They’re going to die today. Mateo and Rufus are total strangers, but, for different reasons, they’re both looking to make a new friend on their End Day. The good news: There’s an app for that. It’s called the Last Friend, and through it, Rufus and Mateo are about to meet up for one last great adventure and to live a lifetime in a single day.

they both die at the end

So this book snuck up on me a little. I’d loved Adam Silvera’s previous two books, but while More Happy Than Not floored me with its plot twists and construction and History is All You Left Me grabbed my interest with its topics on breakups and OCD, I wasn’t as interested in the concept of They Both Die at the End, so I was a little nervous. I’d seen a couple of great reviews and a couple of mixed ones. But then I got to the end, and I’m having troubling coming up with much negative to say about it.

While They Both Die at the End clearly has some sci-fi elements, it reads more like a contemporary, interesting in exploring the “what-if” situation with a realistic story. And yet, the impact Death-Cast has had on the world isn’t ignored–there’s a whole industry out there trying to make money by making the lives of the soon-to-die (called “Deckers”) better, and books, TV, and other stories now have Death-Cast as a plot point. A lot of it serves as commentary for how death is handled on social media, which is something I’ve had to think about recently. Most chapters are told from either Rufus’s or Mateo’s POVs (which are very distinctive), but there are glimpses of other people affected, most of which cross paths somewhere with Rufus and Mateo. Even though it all takes place in a day, there’s so much ground covered that it doesn’t feel rushed or stretched.

We all like to proclaim how emotional Adam Silvera’s books make us, but I’m not sure we give him enough credit for his plotting. More Happy Than Not has a plot twist that reveals so many little details planted beforehand, and They Both Die at the End reminded me of that careful structure. There are a lot of details–especially from the other POV chapters as I mentioned earlier–that fit together like pieces of a puzzle. And how they actually die isn’t quite what you expect.

Even though, yes, they both die at the end, the knowledge of the fact and how it is handled prevents this from being a “bury your gays” scenario. Like History is All You Left Me is about break-ups and grief with a m/m couple, this is a high-concept story about family and friendship and love that also happens to feature two boys. It’s not a “what is it like to be a guy or bi guy?” story. So, as I’m sure you’ve expected, there is a bit of a romance–but it’s a slow-burn, and even though this takes place over just one day, there’s friendship first. Lots of talking about deep, philosophical issues (I mean, what else would you do when your impending death is certain and foretold?) and their lives. Mateo and Rufus are very different characters, but they have plenty of heart and love for their family and friends. It’s cute and tender and pure.

Another thing I appreciated: Mateo likes music and has several songs that he has attachments to, and most of them were the kind of music I listen to, as well, so I had a deeper understanding of their relevancy, even though important lyrics are included. In particular: “One Song Glory” from Rent (regret and last wishes when death is close), “American Pie” (eight-minute epic about an untimely death, anti-60s sentiment aside), and “You’re Song” by Elton John (such a unique choice for a contemporary for its love and friendship song). I was geeking out a bit, I admit.

Pride Month(ish) Wrap-Up

So I’m late to this because I’ve been working a lot. I’ve added the “ish” because the first two books here I read in May, but since they were also Pride themed I decided to include them, especially since I haven’t talked about them yet, either!

Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli

simon coverYes, I finally got around to this, and it was one of those books I read in just a couple of days on my Kindle. Simon is about the titular character who communicates through email with another boy known as “Blue” who goes to his high school but whose identity is unknown. This becomes discovered, however, by one of Simon’s classmates who uses the information to blackmail Simon if he doesn’t try to get this classmate together with his friend Abby. What makes it such a quick and enthralling read is that it functions as a personal mystery with a lot of cute moments.

I especially appreciated the discussion of coming out, because it’s a much more nuanced thing that it sounds like. Simon is worried his parents are going to make a bigger deal out of it than it should be. Is coming out still necessary–and should it be? Also, outing people is TERRIBLE.

I also read Albertalli’s second novel (and companion to Simon), The Upside of Unrequited, but I’m not including it as a separate entry because, as many pointed out during Pride month, that while there are many queer characters, the main characters are cis and heterosexual. I didn’t like it as much as Simon. I really appreciated the many discussions in it, though, from sexuality to anxiety (the routine of taking pills in the morning!).

We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson

we are the antsThis book is by no means for everyone, but it struck a chord with me. It follows Henry, a teen who happens to be occasionally abducted by aliens who tell him the date of the end of the world but give him the option to save it if he presses a button. The thing is, he’s not sure he wants to press the button. He’s also dealing with the suicide of his boyfriend, relentless bullying at school, friendships both old and new, and his family’s various struggles.

This was a welcome antidote to all the discussion about 13 Reasons Why (which I talked about here, and which Hutchinson has talked about himself), because while it is about guilt, Henry eventually realizes there’s really no one to blame–not to mention his own Henry sees the other characters and his relationship to them as increasingly more complex. I also really appreciated the inclusion of the grandmother with Alzheimer’s, as an ailing grandmother with memory difficulties is something I’ve been going through for a while, and Ms. Faraci who was a great teacher ally.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

color purpleHere’s a classic I’ve known I need to read since the 2016 Tony Awards (this performance, wow!), and it applies to both Pride month reading as well as my African American reading goals. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while now, but I was worried that it would be too heavy and complex reading while I was still doing my school readings. It’s true that it’s written in dialect from an under-educated woman (in the form of letters to God…well, mostly, but I won’t spoil it), but once you figure out who everyone is, it reads quite quickly. Plus, I really appreciated the writing and voice.

The Color Purple is Celie’s story as she struggles to find herself in rural Georgia in the 1930s amidst physical and sexual abuse from her father, her sister Nettie’s disappearance, and an unhappy marriage. She meets a singer, Shug Avery, who becomes more than just a friend. I shipped them SO MUCH and it’s beautiful. Also, the discussion of female sexuality was frank and included more than your typical book–even those published nowadays.

I haven’t seen the movie, directed by Spielberg and starring Oprah, but I did listen to the musical cast album and quite liked it. The OBC includes LaChanze as Celie, who I already loved from If/Then (which I talked about here), and Renee Elise Goldsberry (aka Angelica Schuyler) as Nettie.

Star-Crossed by Barbara Dee

star crossedThis is a middle grade book about a girl discovering her bisexuality while rehearsing Romeo and Juliet for the eighth grade play with a really pretty girl. Some of the discussion surrounding this book (including a time Dee was asked not to speak of the subject matter at a school visit) sparked a very personal post about the role of LGBTQ+ books for kids and in schools, and now I’ve finally read it.

It is, indeed, adorable, and I was totally rooting for Mattie and Gemma. It’s also a love letter to Shakespeare and theater nerds, which I very much appreciated. Heck, I think I understand Romeo and Juliet better now than when I saw a production of it over 4 years ago. I also really appreciated that the teacher was a major character and portrayed positively and mechanistically…yay for English teachers! (I mean, I’m going to be one, I’m kind of biased.

I do wish the word “bisexual” was used, though, as it certainly seemed within the characters’ vocabulary. One student gets called out (by the teacher!) for using “gay” as a negative descriptor, and Mattie wonders if liking Gemma means she’s a lesbian at one point, though she late tells her friends that it doesn’t change the fact she likes guys, too–but that’s it. And that rang a bit strange. Everything else, relationship-wise (crushes are a big deal!), was perfect for the target age group.

If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo

if i was your girl.jpgThis book is about a trans girl, Amanda, starting her life anew post-transition when she moves in with her father in a different town, and refreshingly it’s a trans book also written by a trans person. Unfortunately, major houses publish seldom few of these. Russo highlights aspects of the experience I hadn’t given as much thought to before–how, yes, awareness that one is trans and maybe “found out” occupies Amanda’s thoughts, but so does avoiding sexual harassment and other misogyny and specifically transmisogyny. And while she had gone through the ringer and continues to have some struggles, she’s allowed to be a regular teen, too, and start a happy relationship. Because even if you’re marginalized, you’re entitled to happiness in stories.

There is a major bisexual character and I’m not sure how I feel about that representation (as someone also bi). She was great for a while but then took a huge left turn. I don’t want to majorly spoil things, but there is something HUGE and terrible that happens at the end (which is why people need to stop saying this book is too happy??). And while it’s true that this horrible thing happens, and it’s good to show that not all LGB people are good trans allies, the bi character’s problem throughout the story result from her sexual attractions and desire for people, and having her being the most sexually active character was just kind of a stereotype I’m tired of? As is her being [SPOILERS] a backstabber. Especially with her being the ONLY bi character. So…alas, I’m conflicted and was a little disappointed

Angels in America by Tony Kushner

anglesinamerica-poster-09e5123a460579745d30d01cd781ea0aI’ve been reading more and more plays lately because I’m on quite the theater kick (both musical and not), so naturally Angels in America was on my list, and it was especially on my list for Pride month. (Note: I read the omnibus edition published in conjunction with HBO’s 2003 movie/miniseries. I know they were revised several times, especially Part 2, and I think I read the latest versions.)

Angels in America is one of those things that’s difficult to describe…yes, it is a two-part play that, in total, often runs close to 8 hours. It’s set in New York during the mid-80s height of the AIDS crisis. There’s Prior Walter, diagnosed and health deteriorating in the hospital, visited by his ancestors and an Angel. His lover, Louis, is terrified and leaves him. Roy Cohn, a real person (now starring in thinkpieces about how he was Trump’s lawyer), is dying from AIDS but is deeply closeted as he equates homosexuals with a lower class with no influence. Oh, and he’s haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenburg, who he sent to the electric chair. There’s Joe, a Mormon, struggling with his sexuality while his wife, Harper (my dream role; she gets some fantastic monologues), is agoraphobic and addicted to Valium. She spends quite a bit of time in a probably hallucinated Antarctica and meets Prior in one of her hallucinations and one of his dreams. And the 8 principal actors play all of the minor parts, too, adding parallels between characters and some female drag roles. So…it’s epic, it’s weird, it’s moving, and it’s funny at points. Part 2 might overstay its welcome and gets much more ephemeral, but the fact the Angels were present and spoke in verse reminded me a lot of Shakespeare and his supernatural-tinged plays (like Macbeth and The Tempest). It’s very theatrical, and that’s what I loved about it.

I’m also attending the National Theatre Live recordings in (movie) theatres. Part 1 has aired so far and it was AMAZING–like I knew the dialgoue was great from reading it, but seeing it acted out with amazing performances? Even better. Plus, there were great effects and lighting for the more magical elements, and there’s a scene between Joe/Harper and Louis/Prior that takes place simultaneously, resulting in a lot of parallels and phenomenal coordination that you don’t completely get from just reading the play. Unfortunately my theater had a sound problem (a loud feedback noise) possibly from the file itself, but they were able to fix it, though they just had to stop and start a couple of times. When there wasn’t that sound, though, I was utterly engrossed, and I’m excited to watch the second part this Thursday.

Review: History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

history-coverLast year, I was fortunate to win a Twitter giveaway from Adam Silvera for a signed paperback of More Happy Than Not and ARC of History is All You Left Me. It was very lovely and I immediately jumped at the chance to read History, one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. So since it’s going to be published tomorrow, January 17, I’m now going to post my (non-spoilery) review!

History alternates between “Today” and “History” sections, both narrated by Griffin. “Today” begins with the funeral of Griffin’s ex-boyfriend, Theo, who drowned. Against the odds, Griffin finds that he’s able to cope with his grief by becoming friends with Theo’s second boyfriend, and the two work through the situation together. Meanwhile, the “History” sections are Griffin telling how he and Griffin began dating, broke up, and after. Unlike other books I’ve read, I was very engaged in both storylines, especially once Jackson became more of a presence. I was never like, “Oh great, got to get through another ‘today’ section again.”

I’m not an expert in YA (especially since I almost exclusively read the darker contemporaries), but I think it’s fair to generalize that most YA–contemporary or not–features first love, or at least the beginning of a relationship. I’m also often disappointed by these (especially if they are subplots in a more plot-drive, SF/F book) because the dynamics and even descriptions of the characters are often very similar, not at all representative of teenage relationships (as someone who was in one). Like Griffin, I was also in a significant, long-term relationship in high school on which college and mental health had an impact, though that is about where the similarities end. Yet, I found myself relating very deeply with Griffin’s feelings throughout the history and prsent, and that aftermath of a relationship isn’t something I’ve been able to find much in YA. Some of the conversations were painful to read (in a good way!) because of the memories they brought back, and I really related to the situations of wanting things to work out a certain way, still talking to ask for forgiveness, and wanting Theo to be happy.

Another aspect is that Griffin struggles with OCD, based on Silvera’s own. OCD is a wide spectrum of obsessions and compulsions often unique to the individual (I personally have a mild form iinvolving checking and repetitve thoughts), so it was interesting to see the similarities between Griffin and Molly from Finding Perfect, which I read recently too. Unlike the latter, it is by no means the main focus of the novel, but it is a part of Griffin’s life. I really liked how Griffin came to view his mental illness and its impact on his life and conclude that therapy is not a bad thing. Most importantly, he came to realize that he isn’t just “quirky,” as Theo began to call him, and it’s healthy to become a better self rather than holding onto the one someone loved you for despite the fact it was ultimately unhealthy. In a world where mental illness is often romanticized, this is an important lesson, and at the very least it’s difficult to reconcile who you are despite your OCD and how that impacts your relationships, especially romantic ones.

Grief hangs over the whole novel, but for me, History is All You Left Me ultimately revolves around the messiness of being human. Griffin and others make some impulsive decisions that fracture relationships, at least for a little while, but it doesn’t become a lesson. Things aren’t necessarily right or wrong, sometimes tragedy strikes and there’s no one to blame. Welcome to adulthood!

Rewiew: Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Publisher: Balzer + Bray

Publication Date: March 3, 2015

Genre: Young adult, contemporary + magical realism

Winner of the 2016 Printz Award for Young Adult Literature

bone gap.jpgEveryone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?

Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.

As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

Bone Gap is a bit of a difficult book to review, and I don’t feel like a pro/con review does it much justice. It’s something very different, quite literary, and its own little experience. I liked it, but I’d much prefer to discuss it in broadstrokes than a standard review.

Bone Gap is a small town (and a real one) and home to a mystery: the disappearence of Polish immigrant Roza, who we later learn out has come to reside with teenager Finn and his older brother Sean from seemingly fleeing an unsafe situation. The three have quite complicated feelings toward each other. Despite the missing persons case, however, I’m not sure I would really call Bone Gap a mystery. The third-person perspective shifts around from Finn to Roza to even some of the secondary characters, filling in their backstories. As such, the story is much more about who these characters and how they relate to each other.

What it’s really about? The narratives/expectations that surround people (which all small towns and/or other communities are bound to come up with) and horrible consequences of mysogyny, basically. Roza has dealt with many men taking advantage of her because they think they’re entitled to it, leading to some dangerous situations. Meanwhile, Petey (who Finn begins to date in the book) has her share, too, albeit of a different kind because unlike Roza, she isn’t conventionally pretty. There was also a scene where Finn focuses on Petey’s pleasure, containing an act that I haven’t seen depicted in YA (or most of the media) at all. Not that I’m an expert, but it was refreshing to see that.

I’ve seen “magical realism” used the most when describing Bone Gap, and it does play a subtle role. The characters struggle with real issues, but their world is lightly laced with magic. Whispering corn fields, a horse, which is female and likes to be ridden at night, so it’s a “Night Mare,” and more. It gets weird, but it’s rather beautiful, adding a hopefulness to the story. (And I love weird.)

Bone Gap is marketed as YA, and it won a major YA literary award, but I feel that it’s more of a crossover. Finn and Petey’s story deals with teenage feelings and themes, yes, but Roza and Sean are adults and a large part of the story is about them (especially Roza). I really enjoyed the multiple perspectives, especially when publishing seems to want to fit everything int categories (now we just need more push for books about kids aged 12-14, right??).

I highly recommend Bone Gap if you’re interested in magical realism, feminism, and literary fiction.

Discussion: What counts as “mature” content?

Today’s discussion was sparked by a recent piece in Publisher’s Weekly, “Middle Grade Books Take on Mature Topics.” It’s a pretty good piece, describing this trend, its history, and its struggles. But the idea of “mature topics” gave me a pause, especially in this description:

Though the YA category continues to explore darker and more difficult topics, books for upper-middle-grade readers are increasingly tackling subjects once considered almost exclusively the province of books for teenagers: sexual awakening, sexual identity, mental illness, suicide, eating disorders, terrorism, and war and its collateral damage.

It’s true that these topics have been pretty regularly explored in (and, in some cases, defining) YA. But, does that mean they are necessarily “mature topics”?

For one thing, what makes a topic “mature”? It’s probably something that adults are concerned with, but many parents want to shield from their children. Explicit sex and violence in movies makes sense in this way. But topics like eating disorders and other mental disorders? The existence of gay and trans kids? These topics don’t just appear out of nowhere when one enters high school. They aren’t specific to age.

Most LGBTQ adults and older teens will say they knew or had inklings that they were gay and/or trans when they were younger, but may not have had the vocabulary to understand what they were experiencing. There are also many cases of mental illnesses beginning in childhood. These kids do exist, and they’re likely looking for more perspective, reassurance, and more information. And that’s exactly what these kinds of books provide, and they’re shelved in an accessible place for those kids.

And while it may be more high schoolers doing drugs or smoking or drinking or having sex, middle schoolers, middle schoolers and even younger kids aren’t completely in the dark about these things. They might observe these kind of things from their parents or older siblings. They’ll hear rumors about what peers are doing and may feel pressure to do the same. They hear about violence on TV. And they’re all taught about AIDS and warned away from drugs, alcohol, and sex at school (though that last one may not occur in middle school like it did for me). Even if they aren’t participating, the majority of kids don’t live in the candy-coated world we wish they did. As the article points out, however, it has to be written in a way that’s accessible and understandble to that age range.

What do you think of when you hear “mature content”? What is and what isn’t acceptable to be marketed to younger readers? Is anything really off limits?