The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan

Final Ruling: 5/5 stars

Ah, is there any book better than this one?? I THINK NOT!

The Lightning Thief is the ultimate childhood fantasy adventure. It immediately transports a reader into a world where differences are not only accepted, but celebrated. I’m pretty sure every single kid in the world has gone through the same exact thing: feeling inadequate and ashamed of the things that make them special. So many kids put their heads down in the face of their dyslexia or ADHD, being tortured and made fun of (as if living with disabilities wasn’t hard enough). However, in the not-so-unrealistic world of Percy Jackson, those differences just mean that underneath all the normality, there is something truly awesome. Learning disabilities are literally an indicator of a superior bloodline, one that runs directly back to the great Gods of Olympus (how’s that for awesome?!).

The writing is humorous and breezy, managing to integrate witty jokes and sarcasm into life-threatening situations, thus making it accessible to every single age group which, in my experience, is a nearly impossible feat. Riordan expertly weaves Grecian mythology into modern-day America, somehow creating this world in which pretty much anybody is accepted and nurtured to their fullest potential. Through the mythology, he broadcasts this message of acceptance, as well as extremely powerful messages about the most important bonds between people: the bonds of friendship and family.

I read this book first when I was 12, about the same age as Percy in this book, and my copy has just recently fallen apart due to the fact that I have read it relentlessly, turning to the world of the half-bloods whenever those feelings of inadequacy start to creep up on me, as they did during those elementary school years. Of course, now I know that the woes of a 6th grade girl are nothing against the real world, but my goodness did they seem important then. The writing of Riordan got me through the toughest ordeals of that time in my life, Grover and Chiron and Percy were my best friends, and my heart really did reside in Camp Half-Blood. Those tattered pages were my childhood, and it was an amazing honor to be able to grow up alongside Percy and Annabeth; I am sure that their story will stay with me for an eternity, and quite possibly longer.

I would recommend this masterpiece to absolutely everybody. My friends, my family, acquaintances, random people on the street, and anybody else that happens to hear me as I shout my love for this book from the rooftops.

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Magonia by Maria Dahvana Headley

Final Ruling: 5/5 stars

Magonia absolutely took my breath away (so much so that I had to run outside to try and glimpse a skyship of my own).
The characters are shockingly vivid, the plot is unlike anything I have ever read before (and I am a ravenous reader so that is truly saying something), the emotion written into every word brought me to tears, and the twists and turns left me breathless (pun wholeheartedly intended).

Final Ruling: 5/5 stars

Magonia absolutely took my breath away (so much so that I had to run outside to try and glimpse a skyship of my own).
The characters are shockingly vivid, the plot is unlike anything I have ever read before (and I am a ravenous reader so that is truly saying something), the emotion written into every word brought me to tears, and the twists and turns left me breathless (pun wholeheartedly intended).
The characters, in my opinion, were what pushed this book over the top, transforming it into something more than a fluffy fantasy novel, something to be admired, something from which there is a plethora of things to learn. Not only did Headley create these 3-dimensional characters that seemed to leap off the page and into reality, but wrote in a way that the scope of minority representation was incredibly vast, on a scale that is exceedingly difficult to find anywhere. She flawlessly integrated realistic disability, established LGBTQ+ relationships, commentary on racism and sexism, as well as platonic male-female relationships into a world too fantastical to believe yet just realistic enough to be plausible. Her characters are what make this world of literal aliens unfathomably plausible, letting a doubt of reality into the mind of the reader through legitimate historical precedent and the realistic depiction of a debilitating illness. It is even said by the author herself in the Acknowledgements of the novel that the legends of a strange land in the clouds called “Magonia” are completely legitimate, and documented in various historical texts. Thus, a seed of doubt is planted in the minds of the readers, one that blooms into the possibility of belief in such a fantastical world. Along with that historical precedent, the mysterious illness from which Aza suffers provides a very skillfully integrated doorway into this other world. Aza literally dies in the beginning of the book, just after Headley forms an attachment between her and the reader forged from an admiration of her bravery, compassion for her situation, and the unbridled passion in her heart that the reader is introduced to mere pages before her demise. Aza is someone to be admired, someone to be loved, someone to be taken care of, and somebody that I realize anybody would be incredibly lucky to have in their lives. The catalyst that is Aza’s death is used as an introduction into the deeper workings of another soon-to-be major character: Jason. Sweet and adoring Jason. He is revealed to be this beautiful knight in shining armor for Aza, someone who compiles knowledge like a dragon hoarding treasure, in the futile hope that he will have in his mind everything that Aza could ever need. He would literally move mountains for her, or if not move mountains, then commit multiple felonies and completely disregard the American legal system in pursuit of her well-being. Jason, as the book progresses, becomes one of Aza’s strongest remaining ties to Earth, and eventually the person who helps her save herself in the face of complete world annihilation. Truth be told, I was waiting with some degree of apprehension for the seemingly inevitable love triangle that would develop between Jacob, Aza, and Dai. However, I was very very pleasantly surprised when that trite situation did not occur. Aza and Jacob were meant to be, and there is no denying that. In addition to the complicated protagonists, the antagonists are just as well-rounded and complex. At first, the true antagonist is not revealed, and is instead hidden within what seems to be an additional protagonist. Zal is quite obviously the protagonist of her own story, but through a shocking twist, ends up being the antagonist of everybody else’s. Headley creates an antagonist that people can relate to, somebody that some can even come to sympathize with, thus creating ca complicated moral situation for the reader as well as for the other characters. My goodness, that type of story is incredibly rare, and it was like a breath of fresh Magonian air to see it utilized so beautifully. The world of Magonia is brimming with kick butt women, women antagonists who don’t revolve completely around men, women who are leaders, pirate queens, ship captains, and sailors, making wonderfully crafted feminism one of the many underlying veins of this tale.

I could seriously go on for countless hours about this modern literary masterpiece, but some things are better to experience, not just read about. That being said, I would passionately recommend this book to anybody who would listen.

 

This Is What Happy Looks Like by Jennifer E. Smith

Final Ruling: 3/5 stars

Hmm… the one word that I would use to describe this book is… mediocre.

Don’t get me wrong, it was super cute and I am such a sucker for a hopelessly romantic story; but, no matter how much I wanted to love it (which was seriously a lot), I just couldn’t. It was remarkably predictable, so much so that I could guess exactly what would happen before the characters did, which took a lot of the magic out of the events as well as the characters themselves.

Graham is the typical brooding movie star, discovered out of the blue and went shooting into stardom, where he was plagued by loneliness and a life under the scrutinizing eye of the public. All I can say to that is “BOO HOO”, so bad for you, you rich superstar. He annoyed me to no end, and it seemed like all he could do was either complain or brood behind his oversized sunglasses.

Ellie is the token young adult romance heroine, complete with red hair, pale skin, an affinity for chocolate, a home in a quaint small town, and a murky past (which, to be honest, wasn’t really as murky and dramatic as she made it out to be). She was shy, cute, and beloved by everybody in town. She pined after a boy she couldn’t have, fought over him with her best friend, and went around thinking “nobody could possibly ever understand” when, in reality, if she had just communicated with anybody, or better yet, communicated with Graham, everything would have been resolved in a much easier way.

That being said, the redeeming quality of this story was the plot premise. The story between these two had major potential, if it had been carried out with literally anybody except Graham and Ellie. Their meeting via a misspelled email address is absolutely dripping with fate and meant to be, two things I am such a sucker for. They were each other’s “person”, and their exchanges were heartbreakingly sweet and provocative, enough to tug on anybody’s heartstrings. In my case, it tugged the book up two whole stars on the universal five star scale. What can I say? I’m a sucker for true love.

I would recommend this book to anybody in need of a short, feel-good story about two kids hopelessly chasing happiness.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

Final Ruling: 4/5 stars

Can I just say… WOW

I haven’t adored a lighthearted contemporary novel this much since… well, since forever. Call me biased because of my own image problems, but a book about a self-proclaimed fat girl that doesn’t focus on her getting skinny is a new and extremely welcome change. However, there were various aspects of it that were irredeemable in my eyes, and so the beautiful story of an unapologetic fat girl was tainted.

First let’s get the negative aspect out of the way: this book was chock-full of GIRL HATE! Yes, the main character ends up mending the broken ties she makes in pursuit of acceptance, but the way in which those same ties were initially severed are quite unacceptable. From the very beginning the protagonist, Willowdean, is scathingly jealous of her best friend, Ellen, or as Will calls her, “El”. She idolizes El in a quite unhealthy way, and at the same time despises her because of her effortless beauty. So, when El finds a friend that, in Will’s eyes, is everything Will will never be, Willowdean freaks out, lashing out at everybody around her. Without even getting to know El’s new friend Calli, Will hates the girl, and basically forbids El to see her, which is not okay. In addition to hating on the pretty girls, Will is judgemental of the people who try to befriend her, looking down upon them for being fat, crippled, or having a not-so-pretty smile; now that is just blatantly hypocritical, and not in any way acceptable practice, no matter what you look like in comparison because girls need to stick together, not tear each other down (there are already enough people trying to do that anyways).

Regardless of the heartbreak brought on by such blatant girl hate, there were many many positive messages as well.

The first of these lovely messages lies in the way Will goes around kissing any boy she wants, and the way that her weight is not an issue. I know that it could be seen as a not-so-good thing, but to have my insecurities validated really does make me feel better, gives me hope in a world that tells people like Willowdean and myself that we cannot be loved because of the way we look.

On a less self-centered note, the gradual acceptance of Will by her mother is an extremely extremely important aspect of the work, one that I am unashamed to admit almost brought me to tears. Will’s mother, at the beginning of the book, is borderline rude, and it seems that she does resent her daughter for the way that she looks, but by the end, Willowdean’s mom comes through, helping out with pageant prep and respecting her daughter and her daughter’s body much more than she did at the beginning. Motherly love eventually wins out, and they call a fragile truce, ending in a heartwarming and humorous scene in which Ms. Dickson absolutely positively cannot get her dress to zip, only to be saved by Will, her words, and some industrial clips.

The overall heartwarming message is so extremely important and relevant, especially in our current world of fat-shaming and unrealistic expectations. As Will and her ragtag group of outcasts so beautifully showcase throughout the book: be unapologetically yourselfno matter what.

I would recommend this book to all of the girls in my life (and outside of it), because being yourself in today’s world is a hard thing, and sometimes we need a little reminder that it’s okay to stand out.

 

Beastly by Alex Flinn

Final Ruling: 1/5 stars

Woah, okay, talk about mixed emotions. It takes a lot for me to dislike a book as thoroughly as I disliked Beastly. It is a completely inadequate retelling, managing to negate everything that fairy tale retellings aim to do. Quite truthfully, the only reason that this book deserved any stars at all is the fact that it is a Beauty and the Beast retelling, which just happens to be one of my very favorite fairy tales.

Okay, first of all, the protagonist is an absolute brat, like the douchiest of all the douchey rich boys in the world. He plays pranks of those he views as lesser than himself, he is downright cruel to anybody he deems unworthy, he treats the people trying to help him like absolute trash, and he still thinks that he did not deserve to be transformed so that his outsides matched his insides. Not to mention that Kyle’s transformation from cruel and spiteful to good and pure is completely unrealistic. Let’s be honest, nobody can undergo a complete personality change in only two years, especially one as radical as Kyle’s, or “Adrian”‘s. Within this same realm of honesty, a girl, and a witch no less, as powerful as Kendra, should have done something much much much worse after the way that Kyle treated her. Now, I believe in redemption and all of that, but the changing of someone’s fundamental personality is not the same thing.

Moving on to the plot, which was pitiful, even though it did technically follow along the lines of Beauty and the Beast, as it was supposed to. However, the story showed no evolution from the original, even though countless years lie between them. For goodness sakes, it has been hundreds of years, it is time to evolve away from a storyline that revolves around Stockholm Syndrome, of all things. Yes, I know that the original Beauty and the Beast had just as much Stockholm Syndrome, but the purpose of retellings is to evolve the story, a purpose which Beastly somehow managed to miss entirely. There was no new twists, no new meanings, no underlying meanings to be developed, it was simply the same old story in modern day New York City; this fact makes the entire book predictable to a fault, as well as a tad bit creepy, because let’s face it, things that were acceptable in France a long long time ago, are not acceptable in modern day America.

I would recommend this to pretty much nobody, instead recommending that they read the original fairy tale, as even that is a bajillion times better than Beastly.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman

Final Ruling: 4/5 stars

Let me start by saying that this book got an insane amount of hype, so perhaps my picture of it in my head to begin with was the primary source of the slight disappointment I experienced at the hands of this book. The story itself is lovely and poignant, and fed a secret desire inside me that I didn’t even realize I had until I finished reading If I Stay.However, there are, in fact, many glaring faults in this story that led to my merely ‘good’ experience reading it.

Let’s begin with the most obviously wonderful part of this book: the love story. Mia and Adam are so wonderfully contradictory and perfect, it almost seems as if them being together was as inevitable as Mia’s car crash. The rocker and the classical musician. *sigh* how dreamy is that?! Maybe it’s because I’m a musician or maybe its because it was so beyond wonderful to see them bring out the best in one another, as opposed to them being in a borderline toxic relationship, as is the case with most romance novels. It could not have been more picture perfect, that is, until the car crash.

Speaking of the car crash, this was one of the book’s most glaring faults: it was so obviously cry-bait. Don’t get me wrong, I like a good tear-jerker every once in awhile, but at times, it felt like the author was trying too hard to get this response, making some of the moments that should have been lovely and heart-wrenching seem forced. Yes, the story was beautiful, and yes, it was very sad, but sometimes the commentary within was unnecessary and obviously meant specifically to make people cry. In spite of this, it was quite lovely, and I do, indeed, find myself largely overlooking the cry-bait staring me in the face.

One of the reasons I could overlook the faults of the book was the powerful powerful message about choices and their repercussions. Now, most people today make largely insignificant choices, and some of those choices we don’t even think about. Forman magnifies this, turning it into a choice between life and death. The pros and cons run through Mia’s mind, and it is all of those small things that factor into the ultimate choice that make it so heart-wrenching and thought provoking. Forman’s use of this colossal choice in the face of the small moments forces the reader to look inward, to weigh their own pros and cons, and even to better appreciate the small moments of their life, because, as Forman so eloquently showcases, you never know which moment will be your last.

Speaking of last moments, If I Stay revealed a strange and secret question that has been buried in my mind for years: how will people react if I died? Who would care? Who would show up at the hospital and trick nurses just to get a glimpse of me? Mia’s entire family and support system shows up for her, family and friends alike, and it makes me wonder, would mine do the same?

I would recommend this book to those who aren’t afraid to think long and hard about their life and their choices, as well as to anyone in need of a good long tearful existential crisis.