DUMPLIN’ (or: Not Another Love Triangle)

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Dumplin’

★★★

Y’all, I am really tired of giving three-star reviews. I have certainly given more three-star reviews this year than I have in a long time. Maybe that’s because I’ve been reading a lot more than I used to, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten pickier with what I like, and don’t like, in books.

Unfortunately, Dumpin’ falls solidly into the three-star category. I found it 100% meh.

Our hero, Willowdean Dickinson, is a self-proclaimed fat girl who has never been bothered by her size. She’s always had better things to focus on her – friends, school, work, and above all, Dolly Parton. Willowdean’s body positivity is the best part of the story.

“I know that fat girls are supposed to be allergic to pools or whatever, but I love swimming. I mean, I’m not stupid. I know people stare, but they can’t blame me for wanting to cool off. And why should it even matter? What about having huge, bumpy thighs means that I need to apologize?”

But Willowdean soon finds her confidence racked when she starts hanging out with Bo, a brooding teenage heartthrob she meets at work. Bo likes her, really likes her, but Willowdean finds herself terrified of his touch.

“The reality of him touching me. Of him touching my back fat and my overflowing waistline, it makes me want to gag….. I see myself in comparison to every other girl he’s likely touched. With their smooth backs and trim waist”.

As a way to regain her confidence, Will decides to enter the Miss Ten Blue Bell beauty pageant, of which her mother is a former winner and current director. I loved the concept of this – like Miss Congeniality but body-positive! But the pacing of this book is really weird, and the pageant doesn’t actually start until the last few chapters.

A huge portion of the book is devoted to a love triangle between Willowdean, Bo, and Mitch, another sweet and lovable guy vying for Willowdean’s attention.

I get how there is a valuable message in seeing Willowdean, who does not fit into our rigid conventional beauty norms, being sought after by two handsome and popular boys. But the number of pages devoted to her agonizing over the boys is staggeringly boring. The love triangle doesn’t even have any impact on the beauty pageant story. Willowdean does not handle herself well in the love triangle, as she leads Mitch on to keep her mind off Bo – who she broke things off with. I get it, teenagers don’t always act responsibly with other people’s hearts, but it’s also hard to root for a main character when you hate how she’s treating the people around her.

So anyway, I mostly like this book because I’m glad a book with this message exists, not actually because I like the plot or the story. The beauty pageant storyline offered so much potential, but it is totally derailed by a pointless love triangle and a mostly-unlikable main character.

UNDER A PAINTED SKY.

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Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

★★★

I think this book had the misfortune of following These Shallow Graves, one of my favorite books of the year. I definitely had a bit of a book hangover, and maybe that hampered my enjoyment of Under a Painted Sky. But I just never felt like this book got to where it wanted to go.

Missouri,1849. Sammy is a Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming a professional violinist. But when a double-helping of tragedy strikes, she finds herself orphaned and wanted for murder. Seeing no other options, she takes off on the Oregon Trail with Annamae, an escaped slave. The Oregon Trail is no place for two young women, so Sammy and Annamae go undercover as two young argonauts seeking their fortune out west.

My favorite thing about this book was that it features a strong female friendship. Sammy and Annamae build a beautiful bond together as they both escape the demons of their pasts. I really grew to love both of their characters — especially clever and headstrong Annamae. She was a perfect foil to the more introspective Sammy. Even when romance entered into the picture, Lee was careful to make sure the true focus of the novel remained on the relationship between Sammy and Annamae. I loved that.

The author, Stacey Lee, is one of the founders of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and I so appreciated the diversity of this novel. Sammy is proudly and unapologetically Chinese, and many of her conversations and inner monologues are peppered with cultural references — it’s educational but not at all didactic. Annamae, too, is proud of her heritage and does not allow herself to be bullied or harassed by racists. I wish all books embraced diversity as much as this one did.

I thought the plot was lacking. The book gets off to such an exciting start, but after Sammy and Annamae hit the trail, it all kind of drags on. They meet the hot cowboys who take them under their wing, and then there’s like a hundred pages of cowboy lessons (roping, hunting, etc), sing-a-longs, and mild sexual tension. There’s a lot about horses and hunting and fishing. I kept waiting for the Big Climax or Shocking Conflict but it never really materialized. It was just kind of a fun cowboy story, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it didn’t hold my interest.

The writing itself is very beautiful. Stacey Lee paints the landscape of the wild west expertly. It’s definitely atmospheric, and it was really easy to picture myself sitting around the campfire with this band of cowboys. She’s a great descriptive writer. One of my favorite descriptions:

I never heard someone call the sky painted before, but it’s the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape.

It’s definitely not a bad book — I think this could’ve been a four-star read if I hadn’t just finished an almost-perfect historical novel. But the plot was too unstructured, and by the 3/4ths mark, reading it kind of felt like a chore.

THESE SHALLOW GRAVES.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

★★★★★

“‘If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead.”

I’ve been giving out so many two- and three-star rating recently that I was starting to worry that maybe I was getting a wee bit too picky with my ratings. Were my expectations too high?

Then I came across ‘These Shallow Graves’ by Jennifer Donnelly on NetGalley. I had neve read anythoung by Ms. Donnelly before, and I went in with basically no expectations – I read the blurb and thought it sounded interesting. When I started to read it, though, it completely knocked my socks off. It reminded me that YES, there are five-star books out there, you just have to be lucky enough to cross paths with them.

Josephine is a Montfort. A member of a well-to-do family that made its fortune in the shipping industry in the 1800s. Not much is expected of Jo. She’s just supposed to complete finishing school and accept the proposal of Abraham Aldrich. A life of luxury and privileged awaits her. But Josephine isn’t satisfied with the confining path that she is expected to walk.

“The glittering ball, Jo realized, was a symbol for her life. Everything was lovely and perfect as long as each person knew the steps and executed them. The women must only ever watch and wait. The men were the ones who would decide. They would choose. They would lead. And the woman would follow. Tonight and forevermore.”

Jo harbors a secret desire to be become a newspaper reporter like her idol, Nellie Bly. Bly famously posed as a mentally imbalanced woman so she could report on the injustices woman face in insane asylums. Jo, too, wants to draw back New York’s gilded curtain to unveil the ugly truths lurking underneath the surface.

Then, tragedy strikes. Jo’s kindly father, Charles Montfort, unintentionally shoots himself while cleaning his pistol. But as Josephine hears more and more about her father’s tragic accident, she becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his death. Would her father really be foolish enough to clean a loaded gun? Perhaps Jo isn’t the only Montfort with a secret.

What follows next is a compelling mystery as Josephine enlists the help of a handsome local reporter to uncover the mystery of her father’s death. The plot moves along at breakneck pace, so even though the book is 500 pages long, it didn’t drag for a minute. I would have happily read another two hundred pages of Josephine’s adventure. The adventure is filled with colorful characters, atmospheric depictions of New York’s seedy underbelly, and a healthy dose of both friendship and romance.

Josephine is one of my favorite characters in recent memory. She is determined and brave, often chafing against what society expects of her. Still, her level of rebellion feels appropriate for the time period. She’s been so sheltered for so long that she’s still clueless about a lot of ways the world works, with often funny and touching results. She’s courageous and flawed and a wonderful voice through which to experience the novel.

“‘Headstrong girls always end badly,’ Katie said now.
“‘Headstrong is just a word, Katie — a word other s call you when you don’t do what they want,’ Jo said.”

The feminism in this book is so refreshing. As a wealthy young woman, Josephine struggles against the expectation that she marry well and then shut up. But the book also looks at what life was like for women from all walks of life in the 1890s (hint: it wasn’t great). There’s also a lot of strong and courageous female characters and powerful female friendship between Jo and a notorious pickpocket, Fay. Josephine and Fay, from two entirely different social classes, both long for the same thing — freedom. Freedom to do and be whoever they want.

He’d assumed she was a prostitute simply because she was walking on her own in the city at night. Men could walk the city at night and no one thought the worse of them, but a woman walking alone…that was scandalous enough to get oneself labeled as a prostitute.

The romance was kind of perfect. I’m not big on romance in books, but Jo and Eddie develop a very sweet and understated relationship. It’s a slow-burn (a nice change from all the insta-love on the market), and their attraction is deepened by mutual respect and collaboration. I might have even swooned. But I also love that Eddie’s love does not lessen Josephine’s own development. At the end of the day, she is her own heroine.

I could honestly write another ten paragraphs about how much I loved this book, but I think I’ve made my opinion clear. This book will stay with me for a long time.

“This is the best thing, Jo. The city stretched out before you, glittering like a sack of diamonds. Yours for the taking. A drink and a smoke and no one to please but yourself. Freedom. That’s my answer. The freedom to be your own best thing.”

EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING.

Everything

Everything, Everything by Nicole Yoon

★★★

There’s more to life than being alive.

I couldn’t decide which book to bring on a flight to New Orleans with me, so in true over-packer fashion, so I brought three. But Everything, Everything was the one that kept me company the whole way there. I read it in one long sitting.

It’s a great plane book in that it engages you right away. The opening sentences:

I’ve read more books than you. It doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read. I’ve read more. Believe me. I’ve had the time.

Madeline Whittier has SCID, or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency (think bubble boy disease), meaning that she’s allergic to basically everything. For the last seventeen years of her life, she has been confined to her decontaminated, air-filtered house with only her mother and day nurse for company.

She’s relatively content with her bubbled existence until a new boy movies in next door: Olly Bright. They catch each other’s eyes as Maddie peers through the living room window, and I bet you can guess what happens next.

Spoiler alert: Love is worth everything. Everything.

So here’s the thing. This is a hard book for me to review because there were parts of it that I loved and part of it that I thought were very unexceptional.

The romance between Olly and Maddie didn’t do anything for me. I hate to say it, but it was very TFIOSy in a doomed, star-crossed lovers way. Olly essentially falls in instalove with Maddie after seeing her through the window one time. They mime some jokes about bunt cakes. Olly is that perfect 17-year old blend of brooding eloquence and sexy compassion that literally does not exist outside of a YA shelf. I wouldn’t have mined this instalove if I felt that Maddie and Olly had much chemistry, but I just didn’t see what drew them together or made the compatible.

You can’t predict the future. It turns out that you can’t predict the past either. Time moves in both directions – forward and backward – and what happens here and now changes them both.

I much more enjoyed the storyline involving Maddie, her illness and her mother. Their relationship was well-developed and complex, and overall very well-constructed. There is a Big Twist here, and I think how you feel about the book will ultimately depend on how you feel about the Big Twist. I personally really, really liked it — partially because I could almost-guess it, and partially because it just kind of blew my mind. I just wish the twist had come earlier in the book, because I think there was a lot left unexplored in the aftermath.

I do think Nicola Yoon is a really great writer. The book is very well-written, and I’ve tried to include quotes in this review that exemplify that. I would’ve liked this book a lot more without the romance. I think it works better as a character study of Maddie and her mother, and the effects of illness on family dynamics.

Everything’s a risk. Not doing anything is a risk. It’s up to you.


Have you read Everything, Everything? Let me know your thoughts!

HOW TO BE BRAVE.

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HOW TO BE BRAVE by E. Katherine Kottaras

★★

When Georgia’s mother dies, her life is in shambles. Her mother was her rock, her best friend, and her guiding light. Now, all Georgia has left to remember her mother is a last letter, in which she tells her daughter to be brave – to try everything her mother didn’t get an opportunity to do.

So that’s what Georgia does. She makes a list of all the things she hasn’t done — skinny dipping, first kiss, smoking pot, etc. — and then sets out to accomplish them. She’s joined on her mission by her best friend Liss, and the new girl at school Evelyn, who is struggling through her own battles as well. The book chronicles Georgia’s successes and failures as she attempts to make good on her last promise to her mother and become a better and braver person.

Georgia is an easy-to-like character: she’s sarcastic and self-confident, but you can really feel her aching grief too. One thing I love is that Georgia is overweight, but her weight does not define her as a person or character. Too often overweight characters in books are defined only by their size and its accompanying problems. Georgia concerned with much more than her weight. The other characters were less interesting. Liss is the uber-confident best friend who always stands up for Georgia, Evelyn is the troubled sidekick, and Daniel is the too-perfect, 100% understanding, swoon-worthy crush. All the characters besides Georgia felt very one-dimensional, and I didn’t care much about any of their lives or actions.

There are few deeper subplots that balance out the lightheartedness of Georgia’s list. Georgia and her dad struggle to see eye-to-eye on just about anything, especially without her mother to bridge the divide between them. There’s interesting moments about the immigrant experience and the struggles of assimilation for Georgia’s Greek father, but these don’t get flushed out fully. Additionally, each chapter ends with a poetic passage in which Georgia describes what it was like to watch her mother whither away and die — these are the most gut-wrenching moments of the book for me; it was clear the author, E. Katherine Kottaras, has experienced the pain of losing someone close to her.

The plot itself was pretty weak. Most of the stuff on her bucket list was easy to accomplish, and the long passages about learning to draw and taking a tribal dance class were unnecessarily drawn out. I definitely found myself skimming pages because there wasn’t a lot of action happening. The pacing was off too.The book stretches a whole academic year, but I think if you trimmed some of the extraneous descriptions, is could have fit much better over the course of a semester. I didn’t mind the drug and alcohol usage, but I think some people might, so I would be hesitant to recommend this to younger YA readers.

Overall, not a bad book, and I think it will really resonate with a lot of girls. But the uneven pacing, the weird plot and the one-dimensional characters made this one a miss for me.

ARC provided through Netgalley.