Maria’s 2018 Reading Log, Part 3: Brief Reviews of The Spectacular Now by Tim Tharp, Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver, Every Exquisite Thing by Matthew Quick, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli, and The Bird and the Blade by Megan Bannen
I love relaxing on the beach, reading a good book…At least, I’m positive I would love to read on the beach, but, living in Kansas City, I rarely get the opportunity to do so. Let’s all pretend that I read the following books while sipping piña coladas, with soft, warm sand beneath me, waves crashing in the distance. I am wearing the most flattering pink bikini in the history of the universe (it magically removes all cellulite, stretch marks, and spider veins), and David Hasselhoff is sitting in the lifeguard’s chair close by, smiling down at me, asking about my favorite authors.
Jane Austen is my all-time favorite, David, but I read tons of popular fiction. I’m a writer, you know, and even though I haven’t managed to impress a single literary agent with my latest novel, I’m not giving up. I was really depressed for a while, but there’s something about reading good books that makes me want to write good books.
Do you like young adult fiction, David? I do. Sometimes it’s nice to forget that I’m 41. Oh, stop it, you big liar, you—can I call you Dave or “Hoff”? I know you can see my two teenage children surfing out there, but, whatever, sure, I don’t look a day over 25 (this bikini really is magical). Still, it’s fun to open a book and temporarily hang out with angsty, witty, fictional teenage characters who don’t talk back to me. I don’t have to buy groceries for these fictional teenagers, which is a relief, because the real teenagers in my house devour EVERYTHING.
Hoff, you should totally check out these YA books, or buy them for your teenage son or daughter (granddaughter? great-great-nephew?):
Great writing. Great voice. Sutter Keeley, our narrator, is a spectacularly charming trainwreck. I saw the movie after I read the book, and it’s just as smart and dark—which is great, as long as you’re not expecting a feel-good flick.
A Groundhog Day-like tale of the last day of teenager Samantha Kingston’s life. Beautiful descriptions, believable characters, the right amount of introspection and insight.
Not as good as Quick’s The Silver Linings Playbook, in my opinion, but quietly compelling. Interesting look at the author-reader relationship. A tale of Bubble Gum Reapers and poets, and switching from first person to third and back again. This little book packs a big punch (please excuse the cliché—I’m just chilling on the beach here, not a care in the world…except, I do care about these characters, quite a bit).
I saw the movie before reading the book, and let me make one thing clear—the book is almost NOTHING like the movie, but I enjoyed both, equally. What’s the coolest thing that could ever happen to an impoverished, geeky, video-game-addicted teenage boy? That’s exactly what happens here, and it is such a fun ride. Bonus points for all the eighties pop culture references, which I, of course, loved (check out my four-part series of articles, “Growing Up in the 1980s”). Ernest Cline isn’t a great writer—the prose is run-of-the-mill and the ghastly dialogue made me gag—but this is a terrific adventure, and the perfect book to recommend to your geeky teenage son (my 16-year-old loved it).
Reading Ready Player One inspired me to seek out two ‘80s movies referenced in the novel that I had never seen: Ladyhawke and Real Genius. I loved Real Genius—so quirky and funny—and laughed my ass off at Ladyhawke, which isn’t meant to be funny, but, oh my Lord: the awful music, the awful dialogue, the awful special effects, combined with a surprisingly compelling plot and attractive cast…well, it’s worth seeing once and then never again.
Sweet, funny, moving. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie version, called Love, Simon. Remember when all of your high school classmates embraced the notion that “love is love” and welcomed their LGBTQ peers with open arms? Yeah, me neither. Seeing this book on the best-seller list makes me appreciate how far we’ve come.
Simon is a lovable modern hero, who happens to be gay. While it’s true that the plot is largely driven by the public revelation of Simon’s sexual orientation, this is, first and foremost, a love story—an adorable one that made me smile as I read. Simon’s relationship with his friends and family, and all of the scenes set in his high school, felt authentic to me. I found myself wishing that I had been in drama club, and feeling glad that my son is in his high school band, because band geeks, like drama geeks, seem to be such a close-knit group.
Fun backstory time: One of my coworkers has a daughter who is a writer, and this daughter is part of a local writers’ group that includes Megan Bannen, a fellow Kansas Citian. So when my coworker told me about Megan’s debut book launch, I immediately put her novel on hold at the library—which I’m sure Ms. Bannen appreciates, seeing as how she’s a librarian. (I got all of the books I’m reviewing here at my local library, some in audiobook form. Support your local library, people!)
The Bird and the Blade is not the kind of book I’d normally pick up: historical YA fiction set in the late thirteenth-century Mongol Empire, inspired by an opera I’ve never seen, loosely based on some old stories I’ve never read. And the main characters’ names are Jinghua and Prince Khalaf (Ugh, I thought as I scanned the map of the ancient Mongol Empire preceding the prologue, praying that I wouldn’t have to lie to my coworker about liking her daughter’s friend’s book). I powered through the first paragraph, and before I knew it, I was hooked. So hooked that I read the final third of the book on my birthday, instead of party-hardying, because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
How the heck did this slave girl with a mysterious past, Jinghua, become the intimate companion of a brilliant—but also swashbuckling!—prince and his recently deposed father (Timur, fearsome khan of the Kipchak Khanate)? Why is Khalaf—the hottest, smartest, bravest young prince in all of thirteenth-century Asia—risking his life to marry some horrible, snobby princess who kills any suitor who can’t answer her three riddles? Doesn’t Khalaf realize that Jinghua is in love with him?!
I feel like my favorite Bill Hader character from SNL, Stefon, when trying to describe The Bird and the Blade. This book has everything! Princes and princesses, slaves, bumbling assassins, the Great Khan, a blind khan, aristocrats forced to live like beggars in a barren wilderness, crossdressing, heart-melting poetry, deadly riddles, hungry ghosts, camels, whipped tea, sword and arrow fights, playful banter, Tragedy and Romance (capitalized for extra emphasis), delirious singing, apples, disapproving fathers, devastating secrets, that thing where you’re on the verge of freezing to death and have to snuggle with your forbidden lover under a blanket…
I can’t wait to read whatever Megan Bannen writes next. I think The Bird and the Blade would pair well with a visit to the fabulous collection of Asian art in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City. Hooray for Kansas City-based writers, readers, and art lovers!
Now it’s time to return to my warm spot on the beach, in Hasselhoff’s shadow, and read some more.