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Monthly Archives: December 2016

My Year in Books: What I Read in 2016

My Year in Books:  What I Read in 2016

Last year I decided to list all the books I’d read in 2015, broken down by category. I don’t know if this was interesting for anyone except me, but I did point out which books I recommended and which I definitely did not.

I decided to do the same thing this year. This year, you’ll notice, I read A LOT of Young Adult and Middle Grade novels. I’m trying to become a YA/MG author, so this is called doing my homework. You’ll notice that within the self-appointed homework assignment, I stopped for a while in the Judy Blume cannon. I realized I’d never read the classic Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, so I read that and then went back and reread a couple other Judy Blume books.

You’ll also notice there isn’t much in this list that I highly recommend. I don’t know if I’m becoming pickier or if books are becoming crappier, but these days I rarely come away from a book with rave reviews. (See my post about that.) At Thanksgiving I was so dejected by my inability to find amazing books that I reread two of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels just to comfort myself.

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I’m not sure what to do to remedy this problem. I started using #AskALibrarian on Twitter, but I’ve been disappointed by several of the books they’ve recommended to me. I recently read The Year of the Gadfly and Searching for the Rose Notes, both suggested to me by librarians on Twitter.  Although they both started out promising, the plots and character motivations became more and more muddled and ridiculous as I continued, and by the end of both books I found myself saying “Really? I read all the way to the end for this?”

I really want to find some amazing books to read in 2017, especially since I’ll be on maternity leave, and I’ve heard that breastfeeding is a great time to settle in with a novel. I guess I’ll keep asking friends and librarians and the Internet for suggestions, and I’ll  remember that if I’m really not enjoying a book, I don’t have to read to the end. There are plenty of other books to choose from, and I know there must be books out there for me to fall in love with.

What do you guys recommend?  What have you read this year that you loved?

Here is my list of books. (The * means I didn’t finish the book.)  Happy reading in the new year, everyone!

 

YA/MG: 35

The Voyage to the Magical North by Claire Fayers

Ruby on the Outside by Nora Raleigh Baskin

George by Alex Gino

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallaro*

Trash by Andy Mulligan

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar

A Patron Saint for Junior Bridesmaids by Shelley Tougas

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by John Tiffany

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (I wrote a blog post about this one)

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

The Hired Girl Laura Amy Schlitz

Stolen: A Letter to My Captor by Lucy Christopher*

Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead – RECOMMEND A really well-done contemporary Middle Grade novel.  I wrote a post about it here.

Doll Bones by Holly Black

Ash by Malinda Lo – (Cinderella as a lesbian of sorts.  Beautiful writing; terrible plot.)

Fairest by Gail Carson Lavine

The Girl I Used to Be by April Henry

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo (I wrote a blog post about this one)

Looking for Alaska by John Green

The Graham Cracker Plot by Shelley Tougas (I wrote a blog post about this one)

Circus Mirandus by Cassie Beasley

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell — HIGHLY RECOMMEND – A quiet YA romance between two misfit kids. Rowell creates so much tension and emotion within simple school and home scenes. I loved the characters, the dialogue, the interior monologues, everything. Beautifully-written and a great example of a story told from two points of view.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy — RECOMMEND – A YA comedy-romance about a fat Texas girl who decides to enter a beauty pageant. If you want a tutorial on how to plot a contemporary fiction novel, this is it. Murphy puts all the emotional highs and lows in just the right places and takes the reader on a charming roller coaster ride. She’s also created a fantastic character in Willowdean.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

A Path Begins (The Thickety #1) by J.A. White

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume

Blubber by Judy Blume (reread) — HIGHLY RECOMMEND Loved this book when I was a kid, and, to me, it is still the perfect contemporary middle grade novel. There are a lot of books for this age group about bullying, but in so many of them the bullying is predictable or generic or stereotypical.  In Blubber the characters, situations, and the bullying itself are all highly specific, and that’s what makes this book so real.

Here’s to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume

Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume (reread)

The Big Dark by Rodman Philbrick

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (reread) — HIGHLY RECOMMEND Loved this book as a kid and still love it now. Raskin breaks all the rules (adult characters in a middle grade book, “head-hopping” in the narration, etc.), but she won the Newberry Medal for The Westing Game in 1978, which just goes to show that you can do anything you want in a book, as long as you do it well.

A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan

I Am Drums by Mike Grosso

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This is what the cover of Blubber looked like when I read it in the late 80’s.

 

ADULT FICTION: 17

In Search of the Rose Notes by Emily Arsenault

Each Vagabond by Name by Margo Orlando Littell

The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee — If you’re in the mood for something super light this is for you; it’s like Gossip Girl in book form.  And it’s set in futuristic Manhattan.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The Girls by Emma Cline

Trans-Sister Radio by Chris Bohjalian

The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman (reread) —  HIGHLY RECOMMEND — Extremely imaginative and well-written fantasy.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman — RECOMMEND — Beautiful and haunting and strange.  A sophisticated fairy tale of sorts that’s like Coraline for grown-ups.

Elligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Predjudice by Curtis Sittenfeld — HIGHLY RECOMMEND — I LOVED this book, and I’m not even a Jane Austen fan. I thought it was such a clever farce. Sittenfeld takes the P & P characters and story but modernizes and enhances them in such creative ways. Loads of fun.

Bellweather Rhapsody by Kate Racculia *

Cemetery Girl by David J. Bell

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

The Bees by Laline Paull*  — Very cool premise, and I loved it at first, but then I got bored about halfway through.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters — I mostly enjoyed it, but I’ve enjoyed other Sarah Waters books a lot more.

The Melting Season by Ira Sukrungruang

The Year of the Gadfly by Jennifer Miller

Losing It by Emma Rathbone — I’m only to page 65, but I assume I’ll finish before the end of 2016.  So far I’m enjoying it a lot, so we’ll see.  It could be a RECOMMEND!

 

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I highly recommend this book.

 

NONFICTION: 8

Hidden Figures The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age by Katherine Ozment

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfillment of Your Dreams by Deepak Chopra — RECOMMEND — This is a short little book with a lot of good, simple advice for how to live a happy and satisfying life – whether or not success, in your mind, includes money and accolades.

The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know About Your Baby from Birth to Age Two by William Sears, Martha Sears, Robert W. Sears, James Sears

Girl in the Woods: A Memoir by Aspen Matis — I absolutely hated Aspen as a character and found her insufferable, and yet I couldn’t stop reading. I don’t know whether that’s a recommend for this book or not.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot -– HIGHLY RECOMMEND I’m sure you’ve heard of this book already, but the hype is real. It’s an interesting example of narrative nonfiction and an author who really inserts herself into the story.

Big Magic: Creative Living Without Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert —  Normally I love Liz Gilbert. I loved her novel The Signature of All Things and I loved her first nonfiction book The Last American Man. I also loved Eat Pray Love. But I did not love this book. It was okay — not terrible — but mostly forgettable.

Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman — HIGHLY RECOMMEND — Written in a chatty, anecdotal style, I actually read this book before I got pregnant – just for fun. It’s very interesting and shines a light on how culture influences parenting styles.

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I highly recommend this book, whether or not you’re an expectant parent.

How Much Should You Reveal About Your Novel or Your Baby?

How Much Should You Reveal About Your Novel or Your Baby?

Last weekend, my college girlfriends threw me the most amazingly-detail-oriented baby shower imaginable. It was circus-themed, so they served caramel corn, candy-apples, veggies and fruit (including a watermelon carved into the shape of an elephant), and cupcakes in a freaking cupcake Ferris Wheel. They also created carnival games like ring toss (with teething rings and bottles), “diaper dunk,” and “bobbing for babies.” We won tickets at the games, and we could even cash in our tickets for fun prizes.

On a whim, I decided to create my own carnival game: Guess the Name of My Baby. My husband and I have had our name picked out since before we even knew if the baby was a girl or boy. Paul has started telling people because he finds it impossible to keep a secret for very long, so I decided if he was telling people, I should, too.

But, I have to admit, it was a little scary to reveal the name.

I know a lot of people keep the name a secret until after the baby is born, and for a variety of reasons: they don’t want other people to steal their name, or they haven’t quite decided on one, or – and this would have been my reasoning if we’d chosen to wait – they don’t want to jinx anything. They don’t want to speak out loud the name of a baby who isn’t quite a sure-thing yet.

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Watermelon carved into an elephant — impressive!

Just as I was a little nervous about revealing the name of our soon-to-be-born baby (due February 4th), I often get apprehensive when people ask about my novel-in-progress. When I’m in the “first trimester” of a writing project, I rarely tell anyone anything other than perhaps the genre or the vaguest description because I know that the draft is in a fragile, early stage and may never actually go anywhere, or may become something totally different by the time I’m done.

Right now I’m in the third trimester of my pregnancy, and, I suppose, the third trimester of my writing project. At this point, my baby has all of her pieces and parts. All she’s doing now is fine-tuning her organs and senses, and putting on weight.

Similarly, I have finished a first draft of a middle-grade novel. It has all – or most – of it’s pieces and parts and now just needs some fine-tuning. I’ve gotten some great feedback from beta readers, and I’m waiting for a bit more feedback before I dive into a revision. My goal is to have a revised draft finished by the time baby comes. Maybe I’ll even write a query letter and send it out to agents before I go into labor. We’ll see.

So you’d think at this point I might be ready to tell people about my book. To reveal its name, so to speak. (Although, ironically, I have yet to come up with a good title…)

But still, it’s scary to talk about my novel out loud. To people.  Especially people I know.

It’s not scary because I think someone will steal my idea. In most cases, even if someone “steals” your idea, they will use a totally different approach and write a totally different book than yours.

And it’s not scary because I haven’t decided important things about the book. That might have been true at the beginning, but now I have a pretty good idea of the shape of the story.

The fact is, it’s scary to talk about my draft because it’s not a sure thing yet. And I don’t want to be one of those people who blabs about the novel they’re writing and secretly everyone rolls their eyes because they know the novel will never actually happen.

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Prize booth!  (Of course, the best prize will be my baby!)

 

But, here’s the thing I’ve realized lately. Talking out loud to other people about the book you’re writing makes it more real, and sometimes that’s a good thing. People might have questions or comments that point out holes in your plot or possible themes you didn’t notice. Talking about your book to other people might make you more motivated to finish it, or revise it, or seek representation for it. In a way, talking about your book can make you take it more seriously. This is not just some project you’re working on alone in your room, never to see the light of day, this is something that you are planning on bringing out into the world.

It was a little scary at my baby shower when someone guessed the name, and I said “yes, you’ve got it!” and handed her a roll of tickets. But in a way, it made this whole baby thing more real. My husband and I are to the point where we really have to get ready: buy a car seat and set up the nursery and pack an emergency hospital bag. Telling people our baby’s name is one way of saying, “hey, we’re serious about this. In a little over a month, we’re bringing a baby the world. And this is what we’re calling her.”

Sorry, I’m still not ready to talk about my novel, or reveal my baby’s name, to the Internet.  One thing at a time…

What Comes Next? On Getting an Agent and Being a Parent

What Comes Next?  On Getting an Agent and Being a Parent

My husband and I are having a baby (due Feburary 4th) and have been attending a 12-week-long Bradley childbirth class. We have one more class, and at this point we’re feeling as prepared as possible for labor.

At the suggestion of our teacher, I went the other day to a meeting of La Leche League, a nonprofit organization in which mothers support other mothers with issues about breastfeeding and parenting in general.

Up until this point I hadn’t been thinking too much about breastfeeding other than I want to do it. I wasn’t sure it made sense to attend the meeting. What was I supposed to do there? I don’t have any breastfeeding problems yet.

But, always the diligent student, I went.

I was the first to arrive. The rest of the mothers straggled in ten, fifteen, thirty minutes late. They carried diaper bags and pushed strollers. As we sat around in a circle to chat, babies cried and needed to be nursed. Toddlers squirmed on their mother’s laps, threw toys on the floor, took off running around the room. All around the room were the sounds of Cheerio-crunching and the plastic being stripped off of fruit leathers and string cheeses. (Okay, okay, so one of those string cheeses was mine, but at least I ate my cheese and didn’t throw it, half gummed with saliva, onto the floor.)

This is going to be my life soon, I thought. I’m going to be the one chasing a sticky-fingered toddler around the room.

Being there, listening to moms ask about weaning and co-sleeping and pediatricians made me realize: Paul and I have been preparing so much for labor and birth — this one single day (or two) — when maybe we need to spend more time preparing for everything that comes afterwards.

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Here I am in childbirth class demonstrating how to use a scarf to support my belly.

 

I recently taught a workshop at The Bethesda Writers Center on “How to Land a Literary Agent.” It was a great class, and I think the students learned a lot about how to research agents and write query letters. But I also think many writers (myself included) put too much emphasis on this one part of the becoming-a-writer process.

For years I thought, essentially, that if I could just get an agent, then I would be a Real Writer and everything else would fall into place. But the truth is, landing an agent is just a first step in the long journey of becoming a professional writer.

So many writers, it seems, focus on getting an agent. They attend query-writing workshops and go to agent panels at conferences. And these are good things to do, don’t get me wrong. But don’t lose sight of what’s to come, which is, hopefully, a long career in writing.

Once you get an agent for your manuscript, what will you do then? Have you started writing another book? Do you have a platform so you can spread the word about your book? Do you have more to learn about your craft?  Have you made connections with other writers who can write blurbs for you? What will you do if your agent doesn’t pan out or your book doesn’t sell?  How will you refill your creative well and continue to make time for your writing?

Perhaps, in addition to preparing for the agent-hunt, writers should be preparing for the many writing years they have ahead – for everything that comes after an agent says yes.

And part of that preparation, I think, is psychological.

I’ve had to adjust my expectations of both myself and the publishing industry. I’ve had to accept that this is a marathon, not a race. I’ve had to realize that I still have a lot to learn and a lot of work to do on my craft. I’ve also had to figure out how to make writing a part of my life in a way that is healthy and doesn’t makes me feel anxious or self-doubting.

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Here I am at 31 weeks pregnant

 

Going back to my upcoming status as a parent… It’s not that I haven’t given any thought to what happens after the baby comes out. I’ve listened to some parenting podcasts and read part of The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears. The other day, Paul and I went over to a friend’s house and forced her to give us a cloth diaper demo. Yesterday we bought a used changing table for $35. So we’re slowly getting prepared for our upcoming career as parents.

But we also need to prepare psychologically. We need to adjust our expectations of what we can accomplish professionally, especially in the first six months. (I hope to be writing again by the time the baby is six months old, but if I’m not, I need to find a way to be okay with that.) We need adjust to our new lifestyle in a way that is healthy for our marriage as well as healthy for all three of us individually.  We also need to accept that we’re not going to be perfect parents and things aren’t always going to go the way we’d like. All we can do is  love our baby, get advice, trust our instincts, and try our best.

Come to think of it, that’s probably good advice for my writing career, too: love my writing, get advice, trust my instincts, and try my best.

And goodness knows, all the preparation in the world will never truly prepare me for the real thing.  Experience is always the best teacher, and I’m ready to learn.

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin (Meagan & Eva’s Middle Grade Bookshelf)

THE THING ABOUT JELLYFISH, by Ali Benjamin

Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015

National Book Award Finalist

Suggested age range:  10-13 years

 

SUMMARY:

Suzy Swanson is pretty sure she knows the real reason Franny Jackson died. Everyone says that there’s no way to be certain…that sometimes things just happen. But Suzy knows there must be a better explanation—a scientific one. Haunted by the loss of her former best friend — and by a final, terrible moment that passed between them — she retreats into a silent world of her own imagination.  Convinced that Franny’s death was the result of a freak jellyfish sting, she crafts a plan to prove the truth, even if it means traveling around the globe… alone. As she prepares, she learns astonishing things about the universe around her… and discovers the potential for love and hope in her own backyard.

(summary taken from Ali Benjamin’s website)

TOPICS AND THEMES:  Death of a child, divorced parents, some bullying. It’s also possible that Suzy is on the autism spectrum, although this is never addressed outright.     

 

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Eva and Meagan display their favorite MG books.  To read more posts from Middle Grade Bookshelf, go here!

 

So what did we think?  

Meagan:  This book is formatted as a lab report.  It’s broken into sections with headings from the scientific method, which accomplishes two cool things right away.  First, it sets the book apart and helps distinguish it from other contemporary realistic fiction.  It also provides characterization for the narrator, Suzy.  She is a scientist at heart, and so the structure of the book shows us her unique world view.

 

Eva:  Exactly.  The book is divided into sections: purpose, background, hypothesis, etc.  This was probably my favorite thing because it was so clever — and perfect for this character and her story.  John Truby in The Anatomy of Story would call this a designing principle:  

“The designing principle is what organizes the story as a whole.  It is… what makes the parts  hang together organically so that the story becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”

Most stories, he says, don’t have a designing principle, but stories that do have one are original.  And structuring the story in this way definitely made the book more interesting to me.      

 

Meagan:  I was not surprised to discover that the author, Ali Benjamin, is an established science writer.  This book is so immersed in scientific facts and scientific thinking, it could hardly have been written by someone who was not.

 

Eva:  Totally.  Suzy knows and learns so many amazing facts about jellyfish (and many other things) — it was fun for me as the reader to learn about them, too.  She is a fount of knowledge, but all the facts are written in fun, kid-accessible ways:  

Mrs. Turton says that if you lived to be eighty years old, your heart would beat three billion times.  I was thinking about that, trying to imagine a number that large.  Three billion.  Count back three billion hours and modern humans don’t exist — just wild-eyed cave people all hairy and grunting…  And yet here’s your heart, doing it’s job all the time, one beat after the next, all the way up to three billion.  

I was amazed at how much research went into the book, so it made sense when I realized the author started out writing an adult article about jellyfish for a science magazine.  The article didn’t work out, but it eventually became this book.

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Meagan:  I also loved how I saw the story so clearly through Suzy’s eyes.  It took a long time to get how anyone else in the story was perceiving Suzy and why.  That realization made for an interesting and dramatic moment in the middle of the story, and it was almost like I got to have that realization along with the character.  Very well done.

 

Eva:  Yes, it takes a while to realize that Suzy is seen as a weirdo by many of her classmates.  I cringed at one of the flashback lunchroom scenes when she’s sitting with the popular girls, but it’s a perfect example of Suzy’s personality and how she’s seen as odd to others but doesn’t quite realize it herself:  

“Actually, humans have the most sweat glands on the bottom of their feet.”  I say this because it’s true, and also because it’s joining the conversation.  

Molly looks at me and raises a single eyebrow.  That’s how I know I said the wrong thing . I try again.  “Did you know that sweat is sterile when it comes out of your body?”  …  “It’s kind of like pee,” I say.  “Everybody thinks pee is so gross, but it’s actually totally clean.”  

 

Meagan:  Yes, some of those scenes from Suzy’s daily life in sixth grade are the best.  I liked the parts about Suzy and Franny’s unraveling friendship (in the flashbacks).  It’s set up so that you know they used to be best friends and you also know things ended badly between them, but you don’t quite know how.  Most of the dramatic tension in the book arises from watching this social disaster unfold.  

 

Eva:  I thought the flashbacks were well done, too.  And I liked the way they were written — as if Suzy is talking TO Franny — because it helped set them apart from the present-day story:  

You were dead for two whole days before I even knew.  

The flashbacks set up a nice little mystery because we know from early on that Suzy feels guilty about something, but we don’t know what happened.  We get the story parceled out to us through the flashbacks.  

 

Meagan:  I liked the present-moment plot less, although I thought the structure that interwove the two worked well.  Some things in the present plot seemed a little over-dramatic.  Trying not to spoil anything…I thought Suzy’s decision to stop talking, and her plan for how to address her concerns and meet with the jellyfish expert, were both unnecessarily dramatic.  The lower-level drama between the friends in the flashbacks was much more believable and therefore more emotionally real and interesting to me.  

 

Eva:  I enjoyed the present-day plot. I DID question the believability of some of Suzy’s actions, particularly carrying out the plan to meet with the jellyfish expert and the strange measure she takes to “send Franny a message.”  On the other hand, I sometimes thought Suzy might be on the autism spectrum, so in light of that, perhaps her actions are more believable?  I’m not sure.  

 

Meagan:  I also thought the book was about 30% too long.  I kept thinking I’d read to the end, and then realizing there was still more.  Once I read the end of the flashback story, I think I’d had my “core emotional experience” (as Mary Kole puts it), so the rest of it just kind of felt like a long wind down.  

 

Eva:   Yeah, the climax in the flashback story was more emotionally satisfying than the present-day climax, but I think the story probably needed both.  Maybe there was a different way the present-day story could have ended, though, to make it feel more organic and satisfying.  In some ways, the present-day story just seemed like a vehicle for the very-cool lab report structure.  But since I loved the lab report structure so much, I was able to forgive some of what the story was lacking.    

 

THIS BOOK REMINDS US OF:

Eva:  In some ways it reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon.  In The Curious Incident, the narrator, Chris, is a math-obsessed teenager with autism who does not see himself or the world in the same way that everyone else does.  The Curious Incident also has a designing principle.  Not only is it a mystery story told by an unreliable, autistic narrator, but the chapters are numbered using prime numbers instead of consecutive numbers to mirror Chris’s interest in math.  Similar to the way Jellyfish is broken up into lab report sections.   

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THIS BOOK IS A GREAT EXAMPLE OF:

  • A book with a “designing principle”
  • Alternating a present-day story with a flashback story
  • A unique voice
  • Unique characters, and characterization that’s shown rather than told
  • Dealing with grief (death of a friend)
  • Contemporary middle-grade fiction

 

FINAL TAKE-AWAYS:  

Eva:  The lab report structure, unique main character, and loads of fascinating science facts make this novel an original and interesting read.   

Meagan:  I would suggest this book to anyone looking to write MG, contemporary, realistic fiction.  I think it’s tempting to take an easy route with contemporary, realistic fiction and tell a story about friends, family, school etc. that ultimately doesn’t stand out in any way.  This book is a good example of how a contemporary, realistic story can be told with a unique designing principle and a unique first person narrator such that it really makes the story special and memorable.