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2023 Brackets: Beach Reads??

I've never been sure what exactly a "beach read" is. It's not as simple as just reading a book on the beach but...what does it mean for a book to be good reading on the beach? Something that's interruptible? So good you can't put it down even with all the distractions? Mysteries and romances and commercial contemporary tend to get the designation more, as does light-hearted fare. But is that it?

Any way you slice it, I probably did "beach reads" wrong at the end of July into early August, but that's where most of the reading on the bracket below happened. If I had thought of it, I might have tried to judge the tournament based on that criteria...but honestly, I don't know what it means well enough to do that. So I just went with the same gut-reaction/author's-craft-analysis/my-personal-taste-what-can-I-tell-ya criteria as always.

Why did I want to rank all of my books in competitive brackets again? This is my 9th set of 16 books, and it's still more fun than torturous...though still very torturous!

So apparently I really love Ash Van Otterloo’s work!! It’ll be interesting to see the End of the Year Tournament...

And I must really love Ash Van Otterloo, not only because this is the second time their books have come out victorious…but because the competition was so incredibly fierce in this bracket! I do not at all feel like I definitely did the right thing in every match-up!

I kind of thought Mark of Athena would mark another victory for Riordan, and then when Loneliest Girl took the prize I was sure it would sweep after such a close victory! And Catch That Chicken? And, for crying out loud, I’m teaching from Made to Stick this semester! And Tip for the Hangman? Perfection!

But, well, none of those books made me have to pull the car over on a long car trip to weep at the ending of the audiobook. Beautiful, messy, complicated…stunning. And a theatre class project to boot!

Winner: The Beautiful Something Else by Ash Van Otterloo

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

I really am obsessed with Ash Van Otterloo. The pacing is impressive, and they manage to make me care about problems small, large, catastrophized, and ill-considered -- all at once. Each disaster feels of a piece somehow -- leaving the water running in a garden all night inextricably tied with a mother in rehab who doesn't want to see you after all, past and present and family dynamics playing through one another. Most of all, I appreciate the way that healing and processing trauma are allowed to be messy for all of the characters. Nothing is presented as an endpoint or destination but a piece of life ongoing. This is a found family built on sheer determination to heal as individuals and community, to protect one another from the cruelties of the world and your own inner voice of self-doubt. It's a beautiful story, and yes, it's also something else.

Runner Up: Catch That Chicken! by Atinuke, illustrated by Angela Brooksbank

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

A charming tale told with compassion and humor -- what's not to love? I was about to describe the character growth as a child's flaw in thinking: her identity as the faster chicken catcher in the village is all-important, even above her health. Then I took a hard look in the mirror. The message of this book really is a timeless lesson. I just hope more people start to learn it young, and that makes this picturebook not just fun and charming and well-illustrated but fighting an uphill battle for the good of us all.

Hardest Brackets!

There are a lot this time...

I’m kind of sad that I read these two glorious sapphic books together! The winner felt clear because Ash very much paved the way in the publishing industry for books like Never Ever, but I hate to see either book knocked out in round one!

Both books also captured the form of their chosen genres so beautifully. Ash nails the fairy tale voice, level of detail, and plot beautifully. Lo accomplishes the rare and wonderful feat of fulfilling the genre to a tee while still playing with its conventions just enough to add a new flair. And I don’t just mean making the romance between two women – I mean the generational pull and a couple other twists it feels wrong to spoil even with tags.

Never Ever Getting Back Together didn’t have the challenge of using the same format it critiqued, but I appreciated the push and pull of the reality TV genre and the romance novel. I can’t help imagining the explosive fallout if two contestants on a Bachelor-like show ditched the lead for each other, and the book gives you just enough to know where the wind is blowing for the audience watching at home without getting bogged down in the online mess.

I was delighted to see, in reading, that the focus is more on how vulnerable contestants on reality shows are. The book hits how they are plied with alcohol and manipulatively edited and forced into situations they would never have cared about otherwise…and I appreciated a nod to the pressure to continue in the show leading them to make bad decisions. The romance felt organic and lovely for both of our narrators, and the crowning romantic moment doubled perfectly as proof of character growth…which is what makes such things actually romantic. Well done indeed!

Ash by Malinda Lo

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

Malinda Lo is a master of many genres, and the fairy tale is no exception. She captures the pieces that make the tales feel timeless without sacrificing the immediacy that the old tales often lack. This book is a famous pioneer for sapphic love stories in the YA arena, but, reading it in 2023, you wouldn't realize that without the introductions by Holly Black and Malinda Lo herself. I mean that as a compliment. Often groundbreaking books are self-conscious about tropes and situations that were new or at least bold moves at the time. Lo treats the sapphic pairing as natural, easy, and unfraught in a way that feels much more modern than I expected knowing the book's importance in the history of representation. So many important, milestone books aren't as good of reads as you want them to be. This book isn't just important, it is very very good.

Never Ever Getting Back Together by Sophie Gonzales

4.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

This book has a lot of fun hooks -- a peak behind the curtain at the "real" story edited out of reality TV, how it feels to be part of that machine, two bisexual girls who make the logical choice to choose one another over a man, exes rekindling going poorly because sometimes relationships need to die, and even a Taylor Swift song-inspired title. With all of that going on, having two delicate, emotionally sophisticated character arcs going at the same time was ambitious, but Gonzales pulls it off. There was plenty of lovely romantic moments, but the thrust of the book was Maya learning to let go of anger and Syke learning to trust. Learning to value each other enough to do the scariest thing for each of them -- change and grow. Proof that love makes you stronger.

Oh holy cow, how am I going to do this? I read so many wonderful books in my birthday week at the beach! Yes, I know, you are overflowing with pity.

Both of these books are fabulous works of art and craft. Both of them build up a truly unbearable amount of stress that pays off with appropriate and intense conclusions. Both of them zig when so many books would zag (and ruin the power of the narratives they are building when they zag). But ultimately, the appropriate criterion to use for this decision really feels like…the endings.

So um, the next bit is all blacked out, but feel free to scroll over to read the text and check out the (mostly) unspoiler-tagged reviews below. If you’ve read one but not the other, the first paragraph below spoils the ending of Mark of Athena and the second is about Loneliest Girl in the Universe.

Mark of Athena ends on one of the most famous (literal!) cliffhangers of all time, and it is THE defining event for the fandom (maybe rivaled by Nico di Angelo’s arc in the next book…maybe…and well, he’s a part of this moment too). I remember the first time I read it, as many fans do. As a longtime student of literature, I knew that it was the perfect thematic echo to the beginning of the book. We were prepared for it, and it felt inevitable. But nothing truly softens the gut punch of seeing your two favorite characters thrown into Tartarus hand-in-hand, telling each other at least they are together at what is likely their ending. The splash of hope and several tons of romantic gesture makes it, for the moment, even more cruel.

Loneliest Girl in many ways does the opposite – denies us the stable, happy ending that the final two passages imply is about to happen. A tidy little epilogue of our dear Romy with new adult friends or communicating to her therapist or arriving on the new world they have reached or back running the ship now with help or even just a “everyone believed her story about the abusive monster who tried to kill her after driving her insane” note would have diluted the power of the narrative. But oh how I wanted it! To know for sure that she was okay…whatever that even means given what she went through. But James is smart to deny us that, artistically. I guess that’s, ironically, what fanfiction is for? (When it’s not for therapy, and hey, I’ve definitely used fanfiction for unofficial therapy myself.)

So I have talked myself into ranking Loneliest Girl in the Universe ahead of Mark of Athena despite that feeling like utter sacrilege. Both books are so skillfully and emotionally made, but when you look at the raw power of the endings…there’s a twist of the knife deeper in James’s stand-alone masterpiece. Maybe that’s just to be expected, since Mark of Athena is the (wonderful, load-bearing) middle of a quintet. There’s only so powerful even Riordan can make a middle-of-the-series ending gut punch. But dam, he really gave it his all!

Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

One of the best parts of my Riordanverse re-read project is seeing that each book of the Heroes of Olympus series seems to be a feint of one sort or another. The Lost Hero offers Jason as a pretend-new-protagonist so that we won't resent Leo for being Percy-like but not OUR PERCY, then Son of Neptune is The Lightning Thief in disguise while introducing a parallel world, and Mark of Athena has the big distraction of the final cliffhanger and also some of the most romantic moments of the entire Riordanverse to keep us entertained while it does the potentially tedious work of actually setting up the main conflict. It's kind of amazing that it's not until the third book in a five book series that the actual story gets going, but yes, The Lost Hero and The Son of Neptune are both prologues -- doing a great deal of worldbuilding and character-introducing work, but Mark of Athena is when the interlocking series of complicated conflicts are actually set up -- and that's not to mention at least nine complex, emotional character arcs that play out over the next three books in shifting, emotionally moving ways. How did this book not buckle under the weight of that? But it doesn't. There's plenty that is resolved in the final chapters, and while no one would consider the plot finished with the above-mentioned cliffhanger, it is an emotionally resonant and thematically appropriate ending to the individual volume. I'm just impressed -- this set up so much and it had enough going on that it didn't all feel like endless set-up and, most of the time, despite heavy stakes starting to slide into place it was Well done, Uncle Rick.

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe by Lauren James

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

This book made me feel like I would as a high school teacher, watching helplessly as one of my students endured a situation that I saw as frightening and they did not. Sometimes I was being a silly wherry hen, of course, and I hoped for that as I read through to the thrilling conclusion, but the psychological dread of "maybe maybe if this goes perfectly then everyone will be okay???" that built over the first two thirds of the novel was almost unbearable. But I mean all of that in the best way! The story is psychological rich, charming and heartbreaking in roughly equal measure, and unravels its central, entwined mysterious with patience and stunning realness. An impressive and wonderful read.

I’m going to be really honest…I kind of just liked the idea Explosion at the Poem Factory going head to head with A Tip for the Hangman…and then I didn’t feel like that outcome deserved to be written up.

But I will always have a soft spot for meta-poetry, and Lukoff is SO clever and subtle with his poetic references and…well, I’m not the biggest poetry person despite training in Renaissance poetry for three years. So poetry that’s poking fun at itself will always win out over the earnest stuff with me. Not fair. Not correct, even. Just…I feel like I speak sincerity with an accent and always will.

Explosion at the Poem Factory by Kyle Lukoff and Mark Hoffman

4.5 (see original review on Story Graph)

I'm such a sucker for a good poem pun, and I really respect authors who make deep-cut jokes in picturebooks. Why not get that kid who has deep poem knowledge? Why not go for the side joke not everyone will see? But that might provoke an interest in sestinas and whether or not that counts as iambic pentameter. Lukoff has called all picturebooks formalist poetry, and that approach serves him well here -- but he finds plenty of room for fun along the way.

Life Doesn't Frighten Me by Maya Angelou with Jean-Michel Basquiat (Illustrator) & Sara Jan Boyers (Contributor)

5.0 (see original review on Story Graph)

This is a power team up of poet and illustrator. Basquiat is also a master of the picturebook form and pacing. More importantly, it's beautiful, has a good message, and has plenty of visual interest that appeals to children as well as adults.

Mostly I just feel weird that the book I loved so much that I am choosing to teach out of it didn’t make it further in this bracket. With competition like this though…well just goes to show ya! A story will always beat any other way of teaching…I think the Heath brothers would secretly approve of Catch That Chicken! taking the win. After all, it hits all of the SUCCESs points in a much much shorter span.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive And Others Die by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

4.5 (see original review on Story Graph)

It's a relief to find a nonfiction, expository writing craft book that focuses on the big picture & big wins that will actually improve your writing. So many books get bogged down in structure and exact phrases and other things that are important but not nearly so important as the core idea, writing to make your audience care, and thinking through the Curse of Knowledge, as they call it. It's practical advice that starts with the thinking behind any piece of writing and continually challenges writers to think about the AUDIENCE rather than the writer's self-expression.

This match-up would have been harder if Epstein’s novel had spent more time in the world of the playhouses. I get it, the spy stuff is so exciting and you have more latitude in a lot of ways. And she gets MAD points for not misrepresenting (almost) anything about the world of the playhouses. Seriously, I can forgive a bit of rehearsal and implication of a long-run of a single show because you’d have to make the whole book about how weird and ever-changing the playhouses are…though on the other hand, I kind of wish she had.

It’s a beautifully written book with real heart to it, and if a spy thriller is the price of that…at least it ended in one HELL of a finale. Thanks for the excuse to hang with Marlowe and crew.

But um…in Catch That Chicken! there’s a whole spy plot with a chase scene (if in reverse order) and a search to navigate an imposed identity and how people see you. And all picturebooks are formalist poetry, so Marlowe doesn’t even win there.

A Tip for the Hangman by Allison Epstein

4.75 (see original review on Story Graph)

As a Renaissance scholar, the only complaint I have about this book is that its much heavier on the spy element of Marlowe's life than the playhouse side (which made me so happy every time we stopped in for a visit, so I just wish we could have lived there a bit). It's not perfectly faithful to the historical record, but there's an Afterword that explains the author's logic for any stick in the mud purist. But it's a perfect illustration of the fact that the real story (as far as research can take us) only makes for a better, fuller world. Sloppy worldbuilding around Renaissance England is everywhere, and Epstein proves that accuracy adds a richness to character, setting, and plot. The characters are dear, the language is lovely, and the crashing finale is stunning. Highly recommended.

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