Compare This! Breath Like Water vs. Coming Up For Air

OMG I BROUGHT IT BACK! I have been reading a crazy stupid amount of books lately and, since I’m getting through them so quickly right now, I started noticing similarities between them.

So this is my special “There should have been Olympics this month” edition of Compare This! involving two books about wannabe-Olympic swimmers.

Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

VS.

Coming Up For Air by Miranda Kenneally

Breath Like Water by Anna Jarzab

The Pros:

  • The story has a person of color (in this case, Hispanic) lead! The diversity, especially in a sport that seems to be predominantly white, is refreshing and much needed.
  • It shows the darker side of competing — the perfectionism, the lack of social time, the bullying that is supposed to be “motivating”. I liked that it wasn’t afraid to dive deep. (Ha, omg, this probably won’t be the last water pun, sorry.)
  • Every character that we see for more than 2 minutes has a realistic personality and realistic flaws. I mean, I’m not sure there was a two-dimensional character in the whole novel. Everyone had a side to them that you liked and a side you hated.
  • The romance felt genuine and sweet with its own struggles mixed in. Again, Jarzab is keeping it real here.

The Cons:

  • This book can get dark. Like, really dark. And I think, for certain people, it could trigger something. I was not expecting it to go the places that it did.
  • There’s a good portion of the plot that’s all “Harry [the male love interest] is hiding something from me” and maybe it’s just my age or something, but I was kind of over that. It just seemed drawn out and eye-roll inducing.
Coming Up for Air by Miranda Kenneally

The Pros:

  • This book is funny. It’s awkward and hilarious because of it. Because really, I think most of us can remember a point in our lives where we had no idea what a physical relationship actually entailed.
  • Kenneally knows how to write cute characters that you like from the beginning and just want to continue to follow even after the book ends. It’s not hard to like the protagonists, Maggie and Levi.
  • The dedication and the drive to become Olympians is still here, but it’s a much healthier environment for our characters that Breath Like Water. So it was more fun to read about because everyone seemed to genuinely care about them and look out for their well being.
  • While the tone is much lighter, it still doesn’t shy away from the realities of relationships, especially how each relationship proceeds at its own pace and you shouldn’t judge what works for another couple just because it doesn’t work for you.

The Cons:

  • This is by far one of the raciest books I think Kenneally’s written, but maybe that’s just because I’ve forgotten the plots of some of the others? Anyway, this is probably not the best book to hand your 11-year-old cousin. It’s not…graphic…but it’s certainly more than a little explicit at times.
  • I’m not really a huge fan of the basic premise, which is Maggie wants to “learn to hook up” because that’s all anyone does in college. (Hint: it’s not. Like I said above, all relationship proceed at their own paces and hook ups may not be something you’re comfortable with and that’s fine.) So that just made me feel a little weird.

And the Winner Is… Breath Like Water!

Why? For starters, the writing is just pure genius. Right from the beginning, the writing pulled me in and didn’t let me go. I loved how I was just taken in by this competitive world I only knew of from the very polished view broadcast on the Olympics. The characters are also worth it because they were the most real people I have read about in a long time. Every. Single. Person. Is. Flawed. You can see characters in the story who are bad people trying to make good decisions but can’t get past their own egos. It’s just fascinating. And that goes back to fantastic writing.

Seriously. This was one of the best written books I’ve read all year.

Coming Up For Air (Hundred Oaks, #8)

Coming Up for Air by Miranda Kenneally

First Lines: When I’m not in the pool, I’m counting the minutes until I can dive back in, so most of the time my bushy, light-brown hair is wet and reeks of chlorine. This is the story of my life.

After reading a few heavier books in a row (specifically lots of fantasy), I needed a palate cleanser. I needed a simple story with lovable characters and I knew Miranda Kenneally was the way to go. (Also, don’t let the fact that this is the 8th book in a series fool you–they’re more like loosely connected stories that happen to take place in the same town.)

All of Maggie’s focus should be on swimming. As a senior in high school, she’s got a swimming scholarship lined up already, but what she doesn’t have is an Olympic tryout yet. Her best friend, Levi, does, though. He’s her biggest cheerleader, so she’s not mad about that, but it’s just more pressure. When Maggie goes on a college visit, though, she suddenly realizes how much of the “normal” high school experience she’s been missing out on by being in the pool. And it’s time to change that. So, first up is making out with a guy. Unfortunately, the only available guy that she trusts is, well, Levi. On one hand, it’s perfect: they already spend tons of time together and are comfortable with each other. But as Maggie begins falling for her best friend, she needs to decide what’s worth sacrificing to make things work.

Ok, this was cute. I’ve read all the books in this series over the years and I have absolutely adored that they focus so heavily on girls playing different sports, from football to horse racing to running to swimming. I think there’s a real lack of athletic girls in YA contemp, so this series is amazing.

This story is definitely one of the racier books in the series (and I don’t mean that in an athletic way), but it kind of worked? It was done in a way that felt authentic and interesting rather than just explicit. And it found the humor in it, which I think helped a lot too. I really enjoyed the humor. But yeah, maybe don’t hand this to a twelve-year-old?

Maggie and Levi are interesting characters. They’re both so dedicated to their sport and Maggie doesn’t really mind at all that she spends so many hours swimming. She loves it. She just wishes that, like her other friends, she could make out with boys and maybe go to a dance or something sometimes. She’s maybe not as deep of a character as I was hoping, but still cute. And Levi was a good counterbalance to Maggie and a loyal friend. The dynamic between the two was great.

I like Kenneally’s stories because I think they’re relatable and cute and light. And it’s so good to see some of the old characters come back in this book, especially Jordan. 

Top Ten Questions I Get Asked as a Reader

Hello! Ok, so the Top Ten today is one that I just feel…blech…about. I truly don’t care. Sure, I could ask J.K. Rowling some questions or Shakespeare or Ruta Sepetys, but like…I’m more interested in the books. I like the magic contained in the pages and sometimes I fear the answers I’ll hear from the authors. It might ruin something.

So INSTEAD, I thought we could talk through some of the Frequently Asked Questions we get as voracious readers. (I’m sure you’ve heard many of these questions before, you lovely person you!) And I’m going to start with the most dreaded question.

Top Ten Questions I Get Asked as a Reader

1. “What’s your favorite book?”

Uuuuuggggggghhhhhhhhh. Can we just agree to ban this question? For one thing, it’s impossible to choose! For another, my answer is constantly changing! When I went back to school two weeks ago, my students kept asking me what my favorite book was and you’d think I’d have a stock answer, but no. I motion to change this question to, “What have you read lately that was really good?” or “What have you read lately that made an impression on you?” Now, both of those will get FAR better answers out of me.

2. “Ok, then what’s your favorite series?”

I swear, this is usually the follow up. Like, if you don’t name off something they’re familiar with, then you didn’t answer the question. If I said ACOTAR for this answer (which may not even be my official answer), I’d get a glazed look. Then I’d sigh and say, “Harry Potter. It’s Harry Potter.” At least then we’d be able to move past this question.

3. “Haven’t you read the whole library already?”

Why, no, Donna, I haven’t. But that’s my goal! Fortunately for me, more books are published ALL THE TIME so I should never truly run out.

4. “Why would you reread a book you’ve already read?”

Ok, so this is, I feel, the first legitimate question I’ve posted here. No sarcasm. I understand there is a very real debate here. I personally love rereading books. For me, it’s not about already knowing how it’s going to end–it’s that I connected with the characters and the emotions of what they go through. They feel like old friends (looking at you, Greasers) or they remind me of something in my life. Maybe the moment I went through something similar or a moment that happened at the same time I was reading this. Emotion is what brings me back over and over.

5. “What’s so special about Young Adult?”

Honestly, I wish I got asked this question more often because I think everyone immediately thinks every book is like Twilight and dismiss it. (Speaking of, let’s all be honest–if we lived through the Twilight craze, we all now want to read Midnight Sun.) But that’s not at all the genre! YA deals in everything, from the action thriller to the romance to the political movement to social issues–and that’s only the realistic fiction. YA is nuanced in the best ways. I love how the characters usually struggle with an internal conflict at the same time they deal with the external. And they’re usually good people trying to do the best they can. I can’t always say that for characters in adult fiction.

6. “Is the movie better than the book?”

As a general rule, no. But I’m not going to make a definitive decision on that because I think there are times when the movie is better (or at least more iconic). The Princess Bride is an example of this. I’d also like to throw Wicked into this, even though there isn’t a movie yet. I detested the book but I love the musical.

7. “But Miss ——–, why can’t we just watch the movie?”

I frequently get this question from my students. Sigh. As we all know, movie versions are very rarely tied closely to the text enough to be a substitute. There’s something lost in translation between the two art forms, especially when you factor in the time element. Besides, it’s just not the same.

8. “Uh, Miss ———, why are we reading about serial killers?”

To get my students’ attention, I begin the year with short stories, particularly a focus on the macabre. So we read “The Landlady” by Roald Dahl, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Sound of Thunder” by Ray Bradbury, and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. (If you are unfamiliar with any of them, I highly recommend you Google those. They’re fantastic.) So, Johnny, the reason we’re reading about serial killers is because it’s fun for me to see your faces when you realize this guy cut up his roommate and hid the parts under the floorboards.

Admittedly, I have a weird sense of humor. But oh my God, is it fun to show these kids they aren’t in Kansas anymore.

9. “Where do you get all your books?”

I have a large collection of books I’ve accrued through various means: gifts, used book sales, ThriftBooks, and buying them new. When I was younger, I usually asked for specific books as gifts because, as you often are at 12 or 13, I was broke. (Many of those books I still have.) As I got older, I started switching to used books when I realized I didn’t care so long as they were in good shape. My library sells their discarded books for a quarter. Half-Priced Books was a big for me for a time, though their prices when you sell to them are stupidly low and that turned me away. ThriftBooks has recently been my go-to because they are so cheap and I can get a variety of things.

10. “What do you want for Christmas/your birthday?”

Gift cards. I have reached the age where I would rather you just give me a gift card to a bookish place and I will take care of the rest. Most of the time, it’s because I don’t even know what I want yet. If I want to read a book that badly, I’m going to get it from the library rather than wait and see if I got it for a gift. Also, please never ever surprise me by picking out books for me. The odds are high that I’ve either A) read it before or B) decided I don’t have any interest in it. (One of my friends once bought me a couple Terry Pratchett books and I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was not at all interested.)

I’m super curious — what questions do you frequently get asked by nonreaders? Are you as annoyed by some of them as I am?

Night Spinner (Night Spinner, #1)

Night Spinner (Night Spinner, #1) by Addie Thorley

First Lines: Darkness waits like a devil outside my window–curling its shadowing fingertips beneath the shutters, drawing its inky claws across the latch, raising every hair on my body as temptation trickles down my spine.

There were two reasons why I added this to my to-read list/picked this up: 1) I read Addie Thorley’s debut last year (An Affair of Poisons) and I loved it and 2) this was billed as a fantasy retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a story that I love. And also that was a unique choice, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hunchback retelling of any sort. I was interested to see what happened.

Before the massacre of innocents as Nariin, Enebish was the most promising commander in the Sky King’s Imperial Army. As a rare Night Spinner, she has the ability to control darkness. Now, she’s known as Enebish the Destroyer for her loss of control. She’s been exiled to a monastery and reminded daily that she’s more monster and murderer than anything else. Devastated and broken, Enebish knows this is where she belongs, but it doesn’t make her want to be there. So when her adoptive sister, the commander of the Imperial Army, shows up and offers Enebish a deal that might earn her freedom, Enebish jumps at the chance. Enebish only has to help capture to the criminal Temujin, whose gang has been stealing supply wagons meant for the troops and undermining the Sky King. But as Enebish hunts Temujin, she learns the tide of the war has changed and those supplies he steals are the only thing keeping thousands of shepherds alive. Things aren’t adding up. Should she put her trust in the charismatic criminal or her sister? But no matter who she chooses, the enemy is still getting closer…

I just want to mention that this is a gender-bend retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’m sure we kind of picked up on that, but still worth saying. Enebish = Quasimodo and all that.

As I alluded to earlier, I was really looking forward to this book. Thorley’s debut was exciting and had great characters and was well written. This was no exception either. Once I understood the world I had just stepped into, I had a hard time putting it down.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this, even expecting all that. I’ve had a lot of trouble lately getting into fantasy stories, but I didn’t have that problem with this one. It’s very accessible. A lot of the setting does have that medieval city feel to it while still clearly taking place somewhere unfamiliar, so it was possible to recognize where we were and what was happening fairly easily.

The characters were also amazingly well done. The Disney version of Hunchback has a line in it that asks, “What makes a monster and what makes a man?” This story definitely asks that question as well. None of the characters are strictly heroes or villains. They aren’t all good–or all bad. They have questionable morals and their own agendas that often times end up hurting other people. It’s hard to decide who to trust. I liked that the story was so character driven in that respect. It brought a lot of depth to the story and I felt like it made it more realistic.

The one thing that sort of took away from my enjoyment was the same thing I actually really loved: how closely it mirrored Hunchback. Because I am so familiar with the story and because this actually does follow the basic plot most of the story, I blew some of the surprises early. Like, by chapter three I mostly knew how one thing was going to go down at the end. But look, I knew that was probably going to happen going into this. And I did still really enjoy trying to match up these characters with their counterparts (Frollo, Esmeralda, Phoebus, etc.). It just meant that I was then either not able to take a character at face value or I kept trying to anticipate The Thing.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t still surprises in the story. For sure, there were still twists I did not see coming. It just means that since this story lines up with another I’m familiar with, I knew some of what was going to happen. This story still does its own thing while fitting into an existing framework most of the time.

Very enjoyable reading. Way more enjoyable than Hugo’s original story, I’ll say that. That man does not know how to get to the point.

Vengeance Road (Vengeance Road, #1)

Vengeance Road (Vengeance Road, #1) by Erin Bowman

First Lines: It weren’t no secret Pa owned the best plot of land ‘long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him.

I won’t lie–I’d seen this cover before and thought it was too busy, kind of Gothic, and just…not me. But a few months ago, I was looking through books online and for some reason, I gave this enough of a chance to read the blurb. And I found that it was probably totally something I would enjoy.

When eighteen-year-old Kate’s father is murdered, she doesn’t just want justice–she wants revenge. And answers. Because it seems her father was killed for a journal detailing the location of a gold mine in the area. And the only way Kate’s going to get her revenge is if she disguises herself as a boy and does the dirty work herself. But Arizona is not a safe place and Kate’s going to need the help of a couple of meddling brothers who won’t leave her along and an Apache girl who’d just about given up on hope. Even that may not be enough to keep her safe from the gang that’s out for gold and doesn’t mind spilling some blood.

This is an adventure story set in a very dangerous time and place. Arizona in the 1870s was an unforgiving land, especially if you managed to strike gold in any of the mines. As the story constantly points out, gold can turn men into monsters. The setting itself was unconventional enough to make it an interesting story. Factor in that this entire novel was based on a legend (which the author explains at the end) and it just makes it both more fascinating and weirdly creepier.

Kate walks an interesting line as a character. She’s not your typical young woman of the time. She’s lived out in the middle of nowhere her whole life. She knows how to shoot with killer aim and live off the land and track animals. That makes it easy for her to pretend to be a man as she seeks her revenge in a world unfriendly to women. Her voice easily shines through in the story, given her very distinct way of speaking as you can see from the first lines.

This story does not shy away from the harsh realities of a life like this. I was constantly surprised by the level of violence. Shoot-outs, blood, cold-blooded murder. It’s all there.

And this story takes some serious chances. There were some surprising twists I did not see coming because I thought there was no way this story would go that far. I was wrong.

This story rocks because it’s a female protagonist in a dangerous world doing what no one thought she’d be able to do. I would actually consider teaching this in my classroom if it worked in the curriculum. It’s a fast-paced story with tons of action. I’m pretty sure you could get a lot of reluctant readers to fall in love with this.

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly

The Life and (Medieval) Times of Kit Sweetly by Jamie Pacton

First Lines: The Red Knight only fights on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Much to the everlasting chagrin of my boss, King Richard the Bold, aka Len Schwartz. Today’s Friday, and the Red Knight, my older brother, Chris, is running late. Again.

Ok, this probably sounds super corny, but this was high on my to-read list when I learned a book like this was going to be coming out. I have this thing for Medieval reenactments and Ren Faires and I wish I could tell you why, but I truly have no idea. I’ve only been to Medieval Times once and that’s it! But it must’ve made an impression.

Kit is a passionate defender of all things Just. So working as a serving wench at a Medieval -themed restaurant with no way to advance up the pay ladder to help her mom pay the bills, Kit is fired up. All she wants to do is be the first female Knight and joust but that’s not “historically accurate” despite how good she is. The company only lets men do that. So when Kit disguises herself as her brother and enters the joust anyway, the video of her goes viral–and brings with it a lot of trouble from management. But the Girl Knight won’t go down without a fight. Recruiting other girls to her cause, Kit’s next rival could be her greatest–and her last, if management fires her first.

What I’ve come to expect from stories about Medieval reenactments is that they’re going to be very quirky and a little bizarre. This was no exception.

Kit is pretty much exactly who you think she’ll be. She’s fierce and all about equality. She’s literally a Wench at the Castle (the name of the themed restaurant…so original) and wants to be a Knight like her big brother. Except company policy is that only men can be Knights. And Kit takes issue with that. Kit’s also funny and quirky and loyal, which was a nice way to round out her character.

The story bills itself as this like feminist rom-com style story (except with very little rom), and for the most part it worked. It’s definitely a comedy of errors at times and I found myself giggling over what Kit was doing. And yeah, I suppose it fits the bill as feminist too. Kit is constantly told no simply because she’s a teenage girl. The story also involves characters who do not conform to gender roles and/or are LGBTQ+. There’s one nonbinary character with they/them pronouns, one who is bi, and one who is trans. Really none of these things is ever the point of the story. For the most part it was mentioned at one moment and normalized from then on. No one cared, which is probably really how it should be.

I think the one detraction that I have for this story is that it seemed to struggle with tone a little bit. What I mean by that is this: most of the story feels like a comedy. The Castle is a joke in and of itself, and Kit and her friends are just silly and fun, keeping the story feeling super light. But then there are other very serious issues Kit’s dealing with. Her family is poor. Like can-barely-put-food-on-the-table poor. It’s a constant strain on her life, obviously. And while I appreciated the angle that brought to the story, it was always hard to go from laughing about what happened at work that night to the right mood for that scene. I don’t know. I feel like the serious stuff could have been handled/incorporated better. Because it was always sandwiched between funny scenes, it sometimes felt like it was supposed to be a joke itself and it’s definitely not.

I knew it was going to be a pretty light, fun read going in and that’s exactly what I got.