Red Hood

Red Hood by Elana K. Arnold

First Lines: Once upon a time, just hours ago, the doorbell rang. You were ready–lipstick on, hairpins in. His dear face smiled as you opened the door for him, his bright dark eyes, his wide sweet mouth, and small diamonds twinkling from both pierced ears.

I saw this book at the library and knew it had been on my to-read shelf. Even though I didn’t really remember at the time what the book was about, I knew I wanted to read it. I actually grabbed it really fast because I was so excited to be reading “new” books.

With this one, since it’s short, I’m going to copy the official book jacket: Since her grandmother became her caretaker when she was four years old, Bisou Martel has lived a quiet life in a little house in Seattle. She’s kept mostly to herself. She’s been good. But then comes the night of homecoming, when she finds herself running for her life over roots and between trees, a fury of claws and teeth behind her. A wolf attacks. Bisou fights back. A new moon rises. And with it, questions. About the blood in Bisou’s past and on her hands as she stumbles home. About broken boys and vicious wolves. About girls lost in the woods—frightened, but not alone.

Strap in, folks, because we’re about to go for a ride here.

First of all, I want to just make it abundantly clear that I read the whole book, cover to cover. Thought about quitting by the time I got to the end of chapter 3, but I kept going. It’s like when you see a wreck and you can’t quite look away. It was actually so bad it was funny.

Ok, so the review. The writing for this is terrible. It’s clunky and unnatural and a struggle to read it out loud without feeling like an idiot. (I read snippets of this out loud to my boyfriend because I was just so incredulous. He laughed the whole time.) If you doubt me, go take a look at those first lines again. There’s just something off about the writing. It’s also written in second person (i.e. “You pick up the jacket.”), which is really odd. I’ve read short stories written in 2nd, but never whole novels–and I majored in English in school. This is incredibly rare–and for good reason. There was a huge learning curve to get into the story because obviously I am not Bisou no matter how much you say “you.” I did get to a point–finally–where I could mostly ignore it and it didn’t interfere with the story, but that was a long time coming.

This is, single-handedly, the most explicit YA novel I’ve ever read. For real, I’ve read many romances novels less explicit than this. Bisou is 16 and honestly, I definitely would not have been prepared to read this book at that age. The book has incredibly explicit sex scenes for YA, and it also has a huge focus on menstruation. Waaaaay too many details involved in that for my tastes. (Some people are applauding this book for not ignoring the fact that girls do, in fact, have periods as part of normal life and I get that, but the details…they were very descriptive about inserting tampons and other things. I just…did not need that to be the focus of the book.)

The whole angle of the story seems, to me, to be that nearly every man you run into is a predator. That was the theme I walked away with. And like, sure, I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts lately and I have walked through campus with my keys in my hands and all that, but I feel like this story took it to an extreme. Especially because the answer to “what do we do with these predators?” is “kill them.” And that doesn’t seem right either. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I am not exaggerating about that being the theme. That is quite literally what they do with every man who becomes a predator: they kill him.

This book tries so hard to be this like, feminist manifesto. It basically tried to check all the boxes, even though it often didn’t help the story in any way. We have: 1) talk of periods, 2) empowering consensual sex, 3) multiple girls harassed by boys who don’t understand “no”, 4) girls who fight back, 5) girls overcoming predators, 6) police who don’t listen to girls, 7) toxic masculinity, and 8) incels. Yes, incels. That was not something I thought I’d be talking about in this, but here we are.

Look, I understand a lot of this is part of the female experience. Been there, done that. (I’ve been listening to too much true crime lately and am now convinced I will be kidnapped every time I leave the house, but that’s another story.) But again, not all of it really helped the plot in any way. The whole incel thing made me laugh because it was so random. The words “toxic masculinity” are thrown in there like once just to say them, I think? The plot never really went anywhere with either of those two points. And again, I think it tried too hard and went too far. I don’t think the right response to harassment is to upgrade it to murder.

This was just such a weird book. I basically kept reading it because at a certain point, it became incredibly amusing to see what happened next. It is certainly not a book I will be recommending to my students.

Top Ten What I’ve Been Watching In Lockdown

Hey everyone! I’ll have some more reviews soon, but I’m also in the middle of reading something that’s not YA and I want to make sure I still have stuff to post while I read it! This week’s Top Ten is a freebie, so why not jump over to other kinds of recommendations?

As some of us maybe live in places where we’re either still kind of in the quarantine/lockdown paralysis or maybe your area is about to reenter it, I thought it might be fun to talk about what I’ve been watching lately.

Top Ten What I’ve Been Watching in Lockdown

1. Hamilton (Disney+)

Let’s not pretend I didn’t jump on that. I’ve had the soundtrack memorized for 3 years. I definitely wanted to see it. Bonus: I got to introduce my boyfriend to it and he enjoyed it.

2. Psych (Amazon Prime)

This is like comfort food on this list. I’ve seen the early seasons of Psych multiple times. I think I’ve made it to season 4 or 5 before it was taken off of Netflix or something. Anyway, I found it on Prime and when I need something funny that I don’t really have to pay attention to (yet), I turn this on.

3. Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix)

Ok, this requires a little backstory. So I do like real-life mysteries, but I’ve recently been listening to a true crime podcast (Crime Junkie) on my daily walks and, while it’s so good, I end up spending most of the night paranoid that someone’s about to break into my house and kidnap me. Unsolved Mysteries seemed like it was only going to make that worse. I watched the first episode and then immediately watched 2 episodes of Psych. The next episode I watched with my boyfriend. The third episode I watched in the middle of the afternoon. So it’s good, but like…I definitely need to be in the right mood.

4. Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (Netflix)

This movie is so funny. With Will Ferrell, I wasn’t sure what kind of comedy I was going to get. Would it be smart and funny (like Elf–I know that’s a controversial statement) or funny but pretty stupid (like Talledega Nights)? This actually ended up being a heartfelt, adorable comedy. Rachel McAdams absolutely steals the entire movie. The great music is just a bonus.

5. Indian Matchmaking (Netflix)

I have a habit of falling in love with Netflix reality dating shows (The Circle, Love is Blind, etc.) and this was something I turned on because I was tired of mysteries. It’s so fascinating. I’ve learned so much about Indian culture from this already and it’s so interesting to see these dates. The people are what sell the show. I like to say this is Love is Blind and Crazy Rich Asians mixed with When Harry Met Sally. I really enjoy this. HOWEVER, I felt there was little to no resolution at the end of the show/season, so that rather sucked.

6. Feel the Beat (Netflix)

This dance movie is just so cute. It’s a family movie, easily. Like the main actress was in The Descendants or whatever? Anyway, the story is generally that she wants to be a Broadway star but she ends up getting blacklisted and has to return home to Wisconsin, where she ends up teaching dance at the old studio she used to go to as she tries to find a new way to break into Broadway. It’s cute and funny and heartfelt. I liked it.

7. Community (Netflix)

This whole lockdown, my boyfriend and I have been working our way through Community. It’s so weird and surreal that it almost feels more real than what’s going on outside, you know? It’s always funny and offbeat and weird, but I love it.

8. The Trail to Oregon (YouTube)

Speaking of offbeat and weird, this is a musical by Starkid, the same group that did A Very Potter Musical if you know anything about that. This is their musical adaptation of the old Oregon Trail game. It’s got a skeleton cast of like 6 people who play multiple roles. It’s so bizarre and odd, but the actors sell it and it was definitely funny. But you have to really enjoy weird stuff to like this, I’m just saying.

9. Coffee With My Ex (YouTube)

This is a podcast, but I’ve been watching the YouTube version every day while I eat lunch. It’s a podcast by Caleb Marshall and Haley Jordan, most well known for the channel The Fitness Marshall, which does dance workout videos. Anyway, I was doing a lot of those dance videos and decided to check out the podcast. It’s good. Not every episode is great, but they’re funny and sometimes they cover some really interesting stuff.

10. The local news (uh…local channels?)

I feel like I need to give a shout out to the local news on this list because it’s probably easily what I’ve devoted the most hours toward on this list. And also, local news doesn’t get enough respect. They do so much and get so little recognition. I have relied on them so much through all this, not just for COVID updates, but also for what’s good in the community. I mean, they tell us about what’s reopening and what events are going on. I need them.

Breath Like Water

Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

First Lines: The water is breathing. At least, that’s how it seems. I’ve always imagined it as a living thing, benevolent and obedient and faithful. A gentle beast at first, like a pony, but over time something faster. A thoroughbred, maybe. A cheetah sprinting across a flat, grassy plain.

This was a book I was determined to read this summer. Without the Summer Olympics this year, I was desperate to get a little bit of that any way I could–so this story of an Olympic hopeful was right on the money.

Susannah Ramos is a talented young swimmer, talented enough to become a world champion. Just as she’s poised to do something great, an inexplicable slowdown puts her dream–and career–in jeopardy. How is she supposed to regain her old glory? With her hope dwindling, two new people enter her life: a new coach with a revolutionary training method and a very cute new swimmer named Harry Matthews. As Susannah claws her way back to where she used to be, her friendship with Harry turns into more–a lot more. But Harry’s facing his own challenges, and as they get closer, it seems like the world keeps trying to pull them apart. As Susannah struggles to balance her dreams against what those she loves need most, she’ll learn the cost–and beauty–of trying to achieve greatness.

All I can really say to this is: woah.

This was just so well done. I can’t even tell you how realistic the characters felt. I mean, right from the very beginning, Susannah is clearly a perfectionist. You have to be if you want to make it to the Olympics. She’s driven and determined, but that constant drive to make it Olympic Trials has also made her pretty short-sighted in the rest of her life.

Every character, and I do mean every character that we see for more than two minutes, is flawed and realistic. There’s even one character who plays a “villain” role who is a pretty terrible person, but you can kind of also see why not everyone else sees it. I mean, the character development and the thought that must have gone into creating these characters is astounding. It’s one of the most realistic things I’ve ever read before.

The book tackles a lot of heavy topics, which was a bit of a happy surprise. Not that I thought the book was going to focus entirely on swimming, but it was nice to see it be more than that. I definitely do not want to spoil anything, so I won’t go into detail. You’ll just have to trust me that you’re going to feel the feels.

If there was one minor “ding” I could give this book, it’s that I felt like the whole “Harry’s hiding something from me” was overblown. Granted, we’re talking about teenagers and I do remember how easy it was to fixate on something like that, so it was believable. It was just from a reading standpoint it felt a little stale. But it didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.

I guess generally speaking, I found this book to be incredibly real, from the characters to the plot to what was going on in Susannah’s head all the time. It was moving and honest and it showed people making mistakes (sometimes repeatedly). I can’t imagine what kind of dedication it would take to be an Olympian, but this I think gave me a pretty good idea. 

Also, it was just really really good to fall into a world I really only see covered every 4 years. (Swimming has long been one of my favorite Olympic sports.)

Top Ten Book Events I’d Love To Go To Someday

Hey everyone! This topic is a little tricky for me. Where I live in the Midwest, there really aren’t book festivals or anything that are easy to get to. Everything seems to be more on the coasts that are very very far away from me and, well, it seems unrealistic that I’ll make it to them.

I also don’t like crowds of people. So there’s that.

But I thought it would be cool to think about what fictional events from books that I’d absolutely love to go to. You know what I’m talking about. Those moments in books, those parades and big events where you’re like, “What I wouldn’t give to be in the middle of that.”

So let’s explore!

Top Ten Book Events I’d Love To Go To Someday

1. King’s Cross Station, September 1st (Harry Potter)

Yes, I know J.K.R. has been getting into some really hot water late, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to still go to Platform 9 3/4 on September 1st. And like, I know there’s a whole crowd of people who actually do go to the station each year, but like, I want the real thing. Wizards and all.

2. The opening of Wonka’s Factory, October 1st (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

When I thought about this topic, these first two events were what immediately sprang to mind. I wouldn’t even have to be one of them going into the factory (though that would be really awesome), but I think it would be so cool just to see the excitement and the mystery of this reclusive businessman coming out.

3. The Coronation (American Royals/Majesty)

This is probably more Majesty than anything (which isn’t out yet), but it’s part of this world. I think it would be really cool to see how America would do a royal coronation because, as you’re probably aware, we can be pretty Extra. And that would certainly be the case here.

4. Project Scrooge (The Afterlife of Holly Chase)

If you’re not familiar with this story (and you should be–it’s one of my Christmas favorites), Holly is a terrible person who dies in a freak accident after ignoring the Ghosts who came to her on Christmas Eve to try to get her to change her ways. Now, in the afterlife, she’s working for them at Project Scrooge. And I would just love to tour the company and see everything at work. The production, the mechanics, the pizzazz. It all sounds so cool!

5. The Rumble (The Outsiders)

I actually intentionally came up with examples that didn’t involve fighting because A) I don’t like fights and B) I don’t want to be collateral damage in a fight. But I’ve read this scene at least 7 times now because I teach the book and…I think I’d like to see it. I’d probably end up acting like a responsible adult in this and they wouldn’t like that, but also just to see Ponyboy and Soda and Darry and the others in action? Might be worth it.

6. First day of school at Ellingham Academy (Truly, Devious)

I actually want to go here just to see the campus and all these “genius” kids in one place. I think that would be really interesting. I like places that have historical importance and obviously the mystery of this place gives it more of a story.

7. Jordan’s football games (Catching Jordan)

When I read this book years ago, I immediately connected with Jordan and how she was so immersed in the boys’ world of football. I come from a family where, honest to God, the women get more into football than the men. And I really want to see a girl quarterback. That would be amazing.

8. Hanging out in Sherwood Forest (Scarlet)

It’s not so much an “event” as “I really just want to meet Robin Hood and hang out in Sherwood.” I’ve been obsessed with Robin Hood stories pretty much as long as I’ve been obsessed with Beauty and the Beast. (Ironically, that story didn’t make this list in any way because what do you say? “I want to be there when Belle gets kidnapped?” Creep.) I’d also love to be at the ubiquitous archery contest that shows up in most every Robin Hood tale. Just in the audience.

9. Going to movies with Etienne and Anna (Anna and the French Kiss)

Actually, now that I’m writing this, this is starting to sound a little creepy. Originally, I came up with this one because I think it’d be cool to see movies with two very awesome characters in a French theatre. However, now I’m starting to think I’d be a third wheel in this situation and that does not sound like fun. But maybe? Especially if French pastries are involved after, then I’m definitely in.

10. Locked in the library with Autumn and Dax (By Your Side)

Autumn intentionally gets herself locked in a library for the weekend and can I just say, “Sign me up!” Do you know how big my local library is? It’s huge. I’ve been going there for years and there are still places in it I’ve never been. I could get lost in there. Add a couple of other people to make things more interesting and I could definitely be happy there.

The Last Little Blue Envelope (Little Blue Envelope, #2)

Amazon.com: The Last Little Blue Envelope (13 Little Blue ...

First Lines: It was that time of day again. Time to stare at the question, the two lines of black on an otherwise blank page. Question: Describe a life experience that changed you. What was it, and what did you learn? (1000 words)

The whole reason that I reread the first book in this little duology was that I wanted to read this book and get a sense of closure for this series. I’m still trying to get through some older books, and let me tell you, that’s a ride. Early 2000s YA (even early 2010s YA) is waaaay different than now. It’s crazy.

The point. Yes. Let’s get there.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

Ginny spent last summer backpacking around Europe thanks to some letters her deceased aunt left her, asking her to do different things in various cities. When Ginny’s backpack was stolen before she read the last letter, she resigned herself to never knowing how it ended. But months later, a boy from London contacts Ginny and says he found her bag. Ginny can now finish her mission. Only this letter sends her on another adventure, one that includes some old friends and new experiences. This time, there aren’t specific instructions like Ginny’s used to. And life will fill in the blanks.

The story starts about 6 months after the end of the first book. It’s December and life has returned to “normal” for Ginny, which means she’s trying to apply to colleges and get ready for Christmas. This seemed like a good amount of time to let Ginny grow and adjust to how she changed on her last adventure before starting the next one. Also, seeing Europe in Christmastime is pretty novel. I almost always see books set in the summer…for obvious reasons.

Anyway, I liked Ginny more in this book. She’s a little older, a little more sure of herself, and a little more assertive while still retaining her shy side. I liked seeing her more confident. The downside is that I don’t really think any other characters were that great. The book is just shy of 300 pages, which I think cut into some of the other character development time. Keith was horrible this time around. Oliver is an enigma the whole time. Ellis was fine, but she didn’t have a whole lot of personality until the end. So I was a bit disappointed with that.

I did enjoy how much the writing style in this sounded like the Maureen Johnson I’ve gotten to know and love. The story was frequently silly, quirky, and/or bizarre depending on the situation. I was able to enjoy the story more for that reason. I mean, it’s night and day between the writing in this and the first book.

The plot for this one was better than the first, I think, since at least this time Ginny was a little more active in what happened, but I still didn’t think it was great. I know they’re traveling all over, but nothing really happened. Even their setbacks were minor inconveniences that were resolved 2 pages later. Any win was only a win for 2 pages before they zoomed off to their next destination. So like, it didn’t really bring much to the table here. I wanted to like this more, and in some ways I did, but there were issues.

I think if I had read this back in like 2011 when it was new, I would have liked it more. Even with better writing, it’s still so stylistically different from writing now that it just seemed cliche and odd, and not in a necessarily good way.

Top Ten Books That Make Me Smile

Hey! This is such a cute topic, especially since we may have had a hard time finding reasons to smile over the last four months. (God, it’s only been FOUR MONTHS?)

Now, I know I already did a topic like this during this pandemic, so instead of doing a true list of books, I’m going to talk instead about things that happen in books that make me smile, giving you examples to go along with those. Hopefully that will make the lists a little different!

Top Ten *Things In* Books That Make Me Smile

1. Couples who initially hate each other but definitely are getting together by the end.

The immediate first example I can think of this is literally any Shakespearean comedy. So something like Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George (a retelling of Much Ado About Nothing set in the 1920s) is a perfect fit. Also see: Maybe This Time by Kasie West or This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen.

2. Bizarre, kooky characters

I love a weird character who will say something completely unexpected. (I’m currently rewatching Psych, so Shawn Spencer is in my head right now.) But in YA, the queen of this is Maureen Johnson. See: Truly, Devious or The Name of the Star.

3. Complete character transformations

This is my English major side coming out, but I love when a character undergoes a complete transformation. Usually, they start as a bad person and become good by the end. Character development is my jam. See: Wild Bird by Wendelin Van Draanen.

4. An adorable love story

Maybe this kind of overlaps with the first point a little, but I just love a good love story. I love watching the characters slowly fall for each other. I love seeing how the plot helps them get together and tries to pull them apart. I love seeing characters that are perfect complements for each other. See: On the Fence by Kasie West, Nowhere But Here by Katie McGarry, or Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson.

5. Hilariously embarrassing high school fails

Look, high school is never easy. I remember vividly during my junior year, I was walking through the halls before school. It had been raining outside and I was wearing some new Old Navy flip flops that apparently had no traction. I hit a puddle and my feet flipped out from under me and I landed hard on my butt. A few people laughed at me. I got up and kept walking like nothing happened, but I remember it well. So it’s kind of fun when a scene like that shows up in a book and is played for laughs. See: Jessica’s Guide to Dating on the Dark Side by Beth Fantaskey, A Match Made in High School by Kristin Walker, and Paranormalcy by Kiersten White.

6. Fairy tale retellings

I don’t ever think a person can be too old for fairy tales, which works out great since I love them so much. I love reading them and getting excited by how the author has included my favorite moments of that tale into the new story–or how they’ve updated the details to fit this story. See: Of Beast and Beauty by Stacey Jay, A Kiss in Time by Alex Flinn, Hunted by Meagan Spooner.

7. Strong female heroines

Very little makes me giggle more when reading a great book than the female lead outsmarting the villain. I adore it. I love a clever lead. And, because they’re so clever, they usually have a good sense of humor. See: The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson, A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas, Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter.

8. Heartfelt, tender moments between characters

This doesn’t have to be between love interests. This can be two friends who reconnect after a fight, between a parent and a child, a hero and their mentor, etc. I just love a sweet moment of togetherness. Of course, depending on the story, this is also the precursor to ripping your heart out. See: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Rest of the Story by Sarah Dessen.

9. Witty banter

Like I kind of mentioned in #2 and #7, I really enjoy cleverness and quirkiness and witty banter. I think it’s fun to see what the characters will say and do next. I grew up surrounded by people with dry humor, so sarcasm and the like are my favorite. See: The Distance Between Us by Kasie West, Some Girls Bite by Chloe Neill, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare, Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead.

10. That certain Je ne sais quoi that makes me want to reread something over and over

There are books that I return to over and over again because they’re able to combine so many of these elements I mentioned. I don’t really know what exactly makes these books so magical, but they just have all the sweetness, all the great characters, and all the cleverness that I’m usually looking for. See: The Goddess Test by Aimee Carter, A Curse So Dark and Lonely by Brigid Kemmerer, The Host by Stephenie Meyer.