The last time I did a summer reading challenge, it didn’t really work out that well. It was the summer before I entered Chapman, the last summer I knew I might have some time before I was bogged down in scholarship 24/7, 365 (summer classes, man. And winter interterm). The challenge was to read ALL new books – nothing that I had ever read before. For a gal who nurses comfort books like they’re going out of style, that was quite a challenge. I managed it, but I read 37 books that summer and only 4 of them were books I loved enough for them to matter (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Watership Down, The Graveyard Book, and Of Plymouth Plantation, if you’re interested).
I have had much better luck with this challenge. So far, of the eighteen books I’ve read, only 3 of them are books I didn’t love. Several have been can’t-put-it-down all night reads. These are the one’s I’m about to tell you about. And recommend that you try them too. Here they are:
The Wrath and The Dawn by Renée Ahdieh: I love fairy tale re-mixes, and I have been wanting an Arabian Nights tale for SO LONG. I can’t even tell you. I even thought about writing it myself, if I could get a concept figured out. That’s how badly I wanted this thing. And it’s here, in it’s perfect gilt package, and it is glorious.
First of all, Shazi is awesome. She’s there to kill the king before he can kill her. Who doesn’t love a super-spunky protagonist? And then there’s also Khalid and his really horrible secret, and his hotness, and his hostile kingdom. The world feels dangerous as well as beautiful, and it has a magical component that is so epically huge that it’s impossible to understand how much it influences the foundations of everything, because in the beginning it feels like it’s only for background atmosphere.
Shazi basically doesn’t get a good opportunity to kill the king for a while and then finds herself falling in love with him. He also starts to fall in love with her, and then he has to make this horrible choice between her life or the entire kingdom. They’re married, too, so there’s a lot of hot sexual tension (and sex, although not in any detail – it’s more that you know it’s happening in the cut-away), which is unusual for a YA novel. But in the wings there is Khalid’s abusive father, a pregnant lady-in-waiting, Shazi’s failed magician father, her childhood crush who wants to rescue her, and a whole host of natural disaster.
My only real beef with the novel is that it’s a cliff-hanger. Usually that’s a deal-breaker for me, but with this one it isn’t. Instead of my usual ‘my God, guys – how much money do you want from me?’ attitude about cliff-hangers, I’m just ready to throw a party that there will be MORE (!!!). This is the best thing I’ve read this summer. It’s so good I might even read everything Renée Ahdieh writes for the rest of her/my life. All I can say is that the next one better come out soon or I may die of waiting.
The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han: In this book, Belly goes with her mother every summer to live in Aunt Susannah’s beach house (not her real aunt, but her mother’s college roommate). It’s just the moms and the kids in the house most of the time – Belly, her brother, and Susannah’s two boys. The husbands are present only in small days, in glimpses and weekends. Only this summer everything is different. The boys that Belly has had a crush on for as long as she can remember seem to have a crush on her back. There’s a bittersweet feeling that they’re growing up and this summer might be the last one; and then they get positive evidence that yes, this is the last. This is it. It all will end.
I do not know how Jenny Han captured my childhood so completely, but she did. We used to spend huge chunks of the summer on the Southern Maine coast – first at my grandfather’s house in Biddeford Pool and then at my Aunt’s house on Gooserocks Beach. When my grandfather had a house, Aunt Nancy used to rent hers. She and Uncle Dennis would move out for the month we were there, leaving Alysson and Leah behind – five girls in a tiny two-bedroom cottage sharing three beds and a pull-out couch. If two people were in the bathroom, one of them was standing in the shower. Those are some of my fondest memories, all of us stacked together, running free in the ocean and playing house on the granite rocks. This book captures that, and all the losses in between when we knew how bad the property taxes were, and we too knew it was all ending, too.
One of my favorite things about Jenny Han’s books is that I always end up rooting for the guy the main character doesn’t get together with at the end. I think it’s a testament to how real her characters are, and how flawed. People always look more perfect when you don’t know them as well, don’t they? I love that I can’t count on anything with her. Everything is a surprise, even while it feels like something I’ve already lived.
Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz: This is basically a book about a friendship that blossoms into a deep love over the span of about two years. Dante and Ari meet at the swimming pool one summer, and they become inseparable after that. They’re as different as they can be on the outside, but on the inside they’re the same. Neither of them has come from a wealthy background. Ari has a brother who was sent to prison, a father who fought in Vietnam, and a propensity to talk about nothing at all. Dante feels the deep burden of being an only child, wants to talk about everything, and is friendly but friendless.
It’s a good story. A coming of age thing where both boys are trying desperately to figure out who they are and if they can live with who they are. I couldn’t stop thinking about it because of the plot. But what I really fell in love with was the writing. Sáenz starts off using very simple language, easy thoughts and plenty of juvenile tags to the letters and journals he samples from both boys. But as their lives deepen, so does the writing style. And his use of imagery and foreshadowing made me thing of Fante’s masterpiece “Ask The Dust.” With the added benefit that I didn’t want to murder any of the protagonists for being whiny like I did when I read Fante. It’s a beautiful thing.
Saving Maddie by Varian Johnson: I picked up Johnson’s novel because I liked “The Great Greene Heist” so much. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Joshua is the preacher’s son, and is reunited with his childhood crush Maddie (a preacher’s daughter with a bad-girl image) when she comes back to town to stay with her aunt. I think I was expecting it to be this thing where she’s bad and he succumbs to it while renouncing his faith or something. I was expecting drama and drugs and high school hijinks.
Instead I got this lovely story about dichotomies and assumptions. Maddie struggles with who she is vs who she’s told she should be, and what attempting to live up to her label has cost her. Joshua learns to have opinions, to rely on more than his parents, to find a deeper faith through reason and questioning. Both of them learn that parents aren’t perfect, even the good ones, and that love doesn’t really trump all. Not when there are so many other things in play. The whole book is a fight about good and bad, and if we can really assign those titles to anyone without knowing the full story. With some bonus making out to keep things steamy, of course.
I think what I like most about this novel, though, is that it gave me a different perspective on the world. It felt like my own in a lot of ways, but Joshua’s life centered around things that are foreign to me. My horizons were broadened. And that was the point of this whole exercise in the first place, wasn’t it?