For What It's Worth

Monday, July 27, 2015

Review: 2015 5 Star Reads: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda, Challenger Deep, Lies We Tell Ourselves

I rarely give out 5 stars, never mind being able to give three in a short span of time. It’s not that these books were perfect (all three had very minor issues) but that they made me feel, gave me a new perspective and had me thinking of the characters long after I finished reading.

All three are YA and had a unique (to me) way of shining a light on important topics ranging from coming out, racism, and schizophrenia.

1st up!


Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda
by Becky Albetalli

Source: Purchased

Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.
  ~ Goodreads

My thoughts: Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda was a rare blend of sweet and tender while still being raw, honest and unflinching.

There is a cute, slow building romance between Simon and a mystery pen pal, but it was Simon’s struggle and fear about coming out to his friends and family that really tugged at my heart. This was one of the few YA books that I’ve read that really captured the changing dynamics between friends as you grow and change. 

Despite my coming of age experiences being totally different than Simon’s, I could really relate to him. Simon is adorable but not in that pretentious, hip way that YA characters often are. He feels real.

This is the kind of book that leaves you happy and on a book reading high.



Challenger Deep
by Neal Shusterman

Source: Finished copy provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench.

Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior.

Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence, to document the journey with images.

Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head.

Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny.

Caden Bosch is torn.

A captivating and powerful novel that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by one of today's most admired writers for teens.
~ Goodreads

My thoughts: Challenger Deep is not an easy book to read and while there’s a fantasy element (I’ll get to that in a second), this isn’t a romanticized depiction of mental illness. Shusterman unflinchingly explores Caden’s mindset as he goes from mild obsession and paranoia to full blown hallucinations and schizophrenia.

The chapters alternate between Caden’s real life – interactions with family, friends etc and his fantasy world on a pirate ship filled with a crew that Caden can’t differentiate between friend or foe, as they try to reach Challenger Deep – the deepest place on earth.

At first this doesn’t make a lot of sense, as you jump around between the two, but then you start spotting connections. This is one of those rare cases that I recommend reading spoilers for the book first, especially if you are struggling and trying to decide whether to continue. It won't ruin the story in any way and not understanding how the two worlds are connected could deter you from finishing and that would be a shame. (In fact, my mother in law read this one before me and didn’t really like it until the second half but wants to read it again now that she knows what it all means.)

SPOILER! Highlight below if you would like to read –>
Caden’s reality overlaps with his adventures on the ship as a metaphor for his descent into mental illness, his fight for control of his thoughts, and his treatment at Seaview Hospital’s psychiatric unit. The crewmen of the ship resemble fellow patients, Dr’s and even the voices in his head and ultimately schizophrenia itself. <--- END SPOILER!

Challenger Deep was one of most riveting books I’ve read this year and offered a glimpse into a world that’s not often depicted so honestly or worse, with a - isn't being manic fun!!! - vibe.

Shusterman has personal experience with the subject, as his son, Brendan, (who also contributed artwork to the novel) has been affected by the disease.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so powerful on the subject, that educated me, yet left me entertained. There wasn’t anything fun about Caden’s journey, but it’s a surprisingly hopeful book and a must read for any family dealing with mental illness or for anyone seeking to understand and have compassion for people who are so often on the fringe of our society.



Lies We Tell Ourselves
by Robin Talley

Source: arc from BEA 2014

In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.

Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honors student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town's most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept "separate but equal."

Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.

Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it. ~ Goodreads

My thoughts:  I received this book at BEA in 2014 and I’m ashamed to say that once I got it home it got pushed into the background by a wave of newer, shinier, prettier books. After disappointment with the newer, shinier books, I decided to go outside my comfort zone and give this one a try and I’m SO glad I did. Lies We Tell Ourselves is an extremely powerful story.

We talk a lot about “strong heroines” but what we usually mean is a girl who can kick ass with her fighting/ninja/sword skills. I can’t think of anything that says strength more than being a young black girl, with the weight of an entire movement on your back, walking past a crowd of white people (including adults parents, teachers, policemen - that should protect you – but don’t), who are screaming racial slurs, throwing stones, stalking you and your friends in the halls, while you stoically and bravely walk on in silence, just for the chance for a better education.

This book hurt to read at times. It was based in a fictional town during the very non fictional school court ordered integration of black students into white schools in the south in 1959. Yet I could see so much of what happened in this book, in the present day, 2015, headlines as I watched the news every night.

The book is told in the alternating pov’s of Sarah, the girl integrating, and Linda, who is a student and vocal opponent of integration. It was interesting to get both perspectives and see how Linda came by her views and watch them change as she gets to know Sarah.

Sarah’s pov was complex, which I loved. At first she is proud to be part of the first group of students attending a white school but even though she expected resistance, she couldn’t predict the level of hatred and violence directed at her and her friends. She struggles with making her parents proud by succeeding but also wanting to keep her little sister, also a student integrating into the school, safe. At a certain point she just wants to go back to her old school and old friends and let someone else lead the movement. Who wouldn’t want that? As a kid or as an adult – but she perseveres.

There is a slight romance between Linda and Sarah and at first I wasn’t sure that the book needed that additional layer but I think, in the end, it mostly worked. Sarah’s family is part of the NAACP and leading the charge for equality, but how would they feel if they knew their daughter was attracted to another girl? It puts Sarah, who is already fighting prejudice on one front ,on shaky ground even at home as she struggles with her feelings and how they fit into her faith.

I always find it interesting that one group fights so hard for equality then discriminates against something they don’t understand. Often using the same arguments used against them. I thought that was an interesting twist and relevant even though I didn’t completely understand Sarah’s attraction to Linda.

Linda’s eyes are opened once she really sees Sarah as a human being but she always seems to see Sarah as the exception – not the rule. As in, Sarah is an intelligent Negro so she deserves rights but I’m not so sure about the other ones… She makes HUGE strides throughout the book and I guess it’s better to not have the Hollywood ending where she makes a complete, unrealistic 180 on something she was raised and literally beaten into believing. It just hindered the romance aspect for me. But that is really such a small part of this book.

Lies We Tell Ourselves was a beautiful story that showed two young girls with strengths and flaws learning to do what was right not only for a cause – but what was right for them. Really well done!

I know some people, ahem – including myself - tend to stay clear of *issue* books, thinking they'll be boring, but I hope you give these three a try. For those that are always complaining about how all YA is the same, or seek more diversity, these offer a refreshingly honest, lighter on the romance, look at issues affecting young adults in a way that’s honest, yet hopeful.


  1. I really want to read Simon, I've heard nothing but positives for that book!

    Challenger Deep sounds like a book I need to prepare myself for, but it is on my list of things to read eventually.

    I can't t you how many times I had to stop reading Lies We Tell Ourselves because I couldn't sstop crying. I loved everything but the romance in this one.

    1. Challenger Deep is - challenging so stick with it if you give it a try.

      Yeah - the romance wasn't the strongest part of Lies. It added another element which I liked but I wasn't as won over by Linda as Sarah was. I just could not see what she saw in her other than the initial attraction based on looks. It would have been better as adversaries only but I guess since it wasn't overwhelming to the plot, I was ok with it.

  2. Quote:
    "It’s not that these books were perfect (all three had very minor issues) but that they made me feel".

    That's exactly why I give most of my 5 star ratings. At the end of the day, I doubt that any book can be deemed "perfect", but as long as it strikes a huge chord in you, that's it...

    BTW - I have to say that - 5 stars to your reviews...especially N°3! :)

    1. ...And now go ahead and eat my comment or place it elsewhere, you evil Blogger ;P.

    2. My husband and I disagree on the 5 star thing. He says no book can ever be perfect so he never gives 5 stars. I agree with no book being perfect but if I finish a book and it's all I can talk about, or I keep thinking about the characters, or I'm twirling around for days with happiness - then it's 5 stars to me.

      P.S. This post was so long that I was living in fear, all weekend, that blogger would eat it. At least I have a draft of it elsewhere. Lesson learned.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great reviews. I really want to read Simon and Challenger Deep. I've read great reviews on those, and they both focus on topics I love. As for Lies We Tell Ourselves, I read that this past year and I really loved it. It's a very powerful novel.


    1. It was. I think you would love both Simon and CD. Both are really unique and well done.

  5. I'm glad that Challenger Deep was well done. The last couple I read that had mental illness (and was YA) both didn't seem well researched. I really want to read Lies We Tell Ourselves. Yours is one of several I've read that really enjoyed this one and made them think.

    1. It's a really interesting way of explaining mental illness, that seems hit or miss with readers, but it is definitely well researched and given the weight it deserves.

      Lies We Tell Ourselves was so hard to read at times but really, really good. And sadly relevant.

  6. I love stories that surprise a 5-star rating out of us! (It's been a rare thing for me this year, for some reason.) Plus, all of these books are different than what I normally read, which is always a good thing. Stretching boundaries and all!

  7. The sweet and slow building romance in Simon sounds wonderful

  8. Wow...I don't often read issue books but Challenger Deep really sounds worth the read.

  9. Challenger Deep isn't for me but I'd give the other two a try. Lies We Tell Ourselves in particular sounds like it's right kind of quirky for me.

  10. These all sound intense!! Glad you were able to find so many books that you really loved!!!!

  11. You know I loved Simon :) and I also enjoyed Lies We Tell Ourselves. I agree it was a tough read, but really worthwhile.
    I didn't request Challenger Deep, but I've now read a few really positive reviews (and of course I read the spoiler). I'd definitely like to try it!
    Jen @ YA Romantics