Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How to Love


Author: Katie Cotugno
Publisher: Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins)
Released: 2012
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Library
Before:
Reena Montero has loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she can remember: as natural as breathing, as endless as time. But he's never seemed to notice that Reena even exists...until one day, impossibly, he does. Reena and Sawyer fall in messy, complicated love. But then Sawyer disappears from their humid Florida town without a word, leaving a devastated - and pregnant - Reena behind.

After:
Almost three years have passed, and there's a new love in Reena's life: her daughter, Hannah. Reena's gotten used to life without Sawyer, and she's finally getting the hang of this strange, unexpected life. But just as swiftly and suddenly as he disappeared, Sawyer turns up again. Reena doesn't want anything to do with him, though she'd be lying if she said Sawyer's being back wasn't stirring something in her. After everything that's happened, can Reena let herself love Sawyer LeGrande again?
My main question at the beginning of the book wasn't "can Reena let herself love Sawyer," but why the heck should she? Why would she? As the stories unfold, the alternating chapters of Before and After slowly revealing what happened and how Reena felt and feels about it, I found myself beginning to resent Sawyer. I could understand why Reena was enchanted by him when she simply had a crush on him - though there didn't seem to be anything simple about it - but once they were together and Sawyer was such an ass on a constant basis, even with the constant charm, as contradictory as that sounds, I just kept wondering why Reena stayed with him once she realized what he's really like. And even more, now that Sawyer is back, how could she let herself fall for him again?

But then things change. Aside from finding out what really happened in the Before, we get to see how Sawyer is a really great guy. He's sweet and charming, he's sensitive and caring. Of course, it's all mixed up in Reena's swings from loving him fiercely and beyond all help to hating him furiously and pushing him as far away as she can. She honestly doesn't know what to make of him. This story is Reena's, told in her voice, but I loved that we get to see Sawyer's thoughts (indirectly, and we need to sift through Reena's interpretation in order to figure out what Sawyer really thinks) and the way he is slowly revealed as a more complex person than the monster/angel Reena has set him up to be.

The alternating chapters is brilliantly done. It's most brilliant at the end, when a few pages out I could feel what was coming, and sat with my hand over my mouth, bouncing in my seat, as I waited for it to happen. And it totally satisfies when it does happen. Sigh... Romance, tentative and sweetly risky. With an uber-sweet payoff.

A careful and sensitive look at childhood crushes, betrayal, family, disappointment, grief, and true love. Love love love this book, to pieces and back again. (Is that even a thing? Don't know, but I just made it a thing.)

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Beginning of Everything

Author: Robyn Schneider
Publisher: Katherine Tegen (HarperCollins)
Released: 2013
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Library
Golden boy Ezra Faulkner believes everyone has a tragedy waiting for them - a single encounter after which everything that really matters will happen. His particular tragedy waited until he was primed to lose it all: In one spectacular night, a reckless driver shatters Ezra's knee, his athletic career, and his social life.

No longer a front-runner for Homecoming King, Ezra finds himself at the table of misfits, where he encounters new girl Cassidy Thorpe. Cassidy is unlike anyone Ezra has ever met - achingly effortless and fiercely intelligent.

But as Ezra dives into his new studies, new friendships, and new love, he learns that some people, like books, are easy to misread. And now he must consider: If one's singular tragedy has already hit, what happens when more misfortune strikes?
I love love love this book. It's a bit of a bait-and-switch, but not really, but kind of - oh, darn it. What I mean is this - the story begins with rumination about tragedy, so I guess you're kind of prepared for a sad kind of tale. But then Ezra finds his place in a new circle of friends, and most of the book is him settling in, having new experiences and discovering who he is, basically enjoying life in a good, healthy way. And then when you're kind of ready to hear what Cassidy's story really is, when you (or at least I) think you know what the mystery is, when you think there's going to be a nice, lovely resolution - well, none of that happens. You do hear Cassidy's story, but none of it is simple, none of it is what you (I) thought it would be.

The thing is that Ezra really does grow. But in the way life tends to go, he has setbacks just when it seems he's found everything. And the big, huge mystery and problem is much more complicated than you could imagine, even after you've found out the base issue. And I absolutely love the way Robyn blended so many different issues together in one page - really, in one paragraph. There's the guilt I expected, though not in the way I expected it, there's frustration and depression, there's paranoia and despair, there's family, forgiveness, friendship and romance. And then there's picking yourself up after everything you've come to know falls apart.

So basically, this book wins on two fronts - the bulk of the book is just plain fun. Because yeah, Ezra is struggling with getting to know himself and his place, but it's all with jokes, and bad (very bad) puns, and good-natured ribbing, and finding out what real people are like when the jocks and cheerleaders fade into the background.

And then when tragedy hits again, my heart broke. I love both Ezra and Cassidy, I love their relationship, I love their friends. And in a weird sort of way because they are completely fictional characters (though why this is any weirder than loving them, I'm not sure) I admire them. They're good people. They make mistakes, but they're good. They try as hard as they can to do good for others. That's kind of where they go wrong, which only makes the whole thing that much more tragic.

But by the end of the book, after we've had all the fun and the heartache, there's a sweet non-resolution, not wrapping things up too neatly, because when is life ever neat, but with the promise and hope of healing.

Afterparty

Author: Ann Redisch Stampler
Publisher: Simon Pulse (Simon & Schuster)
Release Date: January 7, 2014
Genre: YA Contemporary
Source: Review Copy from Author
Emma is tired of being good. Always the dutiful daughter to an overprotective father, she is the antithesis of her mother - whose name her dad won't even say out loud. That's why meeting Siobhan is the best thing to happen to her... and the most dangerous. Because Siobhan is fun and alluring and experienced and lives on the edge. In other words, she's everything Emma is not.

And it may be more than Emma can handle.

Because as intoxicating as her secret life may be, when Emma begins to make her own decisions, Siobhan starts to unravel. It's more than just Dylan, the boy who comes between them. Their high-stakes pacts are spinning out of control. Elaborate lies become second nature. Loyalties and boundaries are blurred. And it all comes to a head at the infamous Afterparty, where debauchery rages and an intense, inescapable confrontation ends in a plummet from the rooftop...
I already knew that I love Ann Redisch Stampler's style from her book Where It Began. With Afterparty, the narrator's voice, Emma's voice, is so clear and so sharp. In fact, that sharpness becomes so important in the pivotal scene where Emma is drunk and high and who knows what else, and her voice actually loses some of that sharpness. To me, it highlighted the way that even as Emma categorized herself as "Bad Emma" throughout the book, she didn't even realize how not-bad she was being. Yes, she was sneaking out and disobeying her father, she was going to wild parties (kinda), she had a (gasp!) boyfriend, she lied and lied and lied - but those asides from her "conscience" and "compass" telling her that everything she was doing was so bad, all ignored the way she barely did anything really wrong or bad. Every time she sets out to do something crazy, she either backs out or does a modified version of it. That loss of sharpness is so jarring precisely because she hasn't been in a position to lose it throughout the whole book up until that point. She thinks she's wild, but if you count up and catalog her infractions, she's not that bad.

Of course, that's the point. She is no judge of what's beyond normal, what's crazy sh*t and what's only requiring secrecy because of her overprotective father. Now her father is brilliantly portrayed. He's not evil, she doesn't hate him. Actually, their relationship is pretty good and I'm kinda in love with their conversations toward the end of the book. But because she hasn't had normal experiences growing up, because she felt she had something to prove because of who her mother was, she has a totally skewed idea of normal. So first of all, when any casual observer could see that Siobhan is over the top out of control, Emma doesn't know the difference and thinks this is just normal teenager behavior. And then there's the voice telling her she's bad bad bad, which I know from experience does nothing to make you a better person and actually usually does the opposite.

All the relationships in the book, with the partial exception of Emma's father, are craaaazy. It seems like no one knows what normal even looks like. Siobhan's family, Dylan's family, Dylan himself - I'm sorry, I do like Dylan, but he is just as messed up as Siobhan and Emma in his own way. He's dark and mysterious, he seems to be holding it together, mature and aloof - and when his own crap blows up, he falls to pieces and makes every wrong decision he possibly could. It doesn't help any of this that just about every teenager is lying to at least one person about one thing at any given point.

Basically, this tells the story of repression, bad judgement, damaging friendships, and the true meaning of loyalty and trust. In a non-preachy, thoroughly enjoyable way. A great great book.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Crown of Midnight


Author: Sarah J. Maas
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Released: August 27, 2013
Genre: YA Fantasy (Romance)
Series: Throne of Glass #2
Source: Library
After a year of hard labor in the Salt Mines of Endovier, eighteen-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien has won the king's contest to become the new royal assassin. Yet Celaena is far from loyal to the crown – a secret she hides from even her most intimate confidantes. Keeping up the deadly charade—while pretending to do the king's bidding—will test her in frightening new ways, especially when she's given a task that could jeopardize everything she's come to care for. And there are far more dangerous forces gathering on the horizon -- forces that threaten to destroy her entire world, and will surely force Celaena to make a choice. Where do the assassin’s loyalties lie, and who is she most willing to fight for?
I've been following Sarah on Tumblr, and though I hadn't been able to get the book until last week, I loved seeing her reblogs of fanart along with explanations of why they drew those scenes. So when I read the book, and I came to those scenes, I was able to think of those images. Which I would have thought would detract from my personal experience of the book, but it didn't. It just made it richer, like when the book says "Chaol barely made it into an empty broom closet before the sobs hit," I remembered the fanart of Chaol bent over and sobbing, and it wrenched my heart out.

The entire book wrenched my heart out. If the first book was dark, at least it had bright spots of budding romance and lighthearted banter amid the terrifying and treacherous goings-on. But this book, aside from some parts where Celaena and Chaol spend some time together as friends and then lovers - which are great, by the way - Celaena is just a mess of aching and sorrow and rage. Of course, this propels her to act, to find out what's going on and accept her task assigned by Elena, but it hurts so much.

The secret that's revealed at the end of the book - I guessed it earlier, but I think that's just because I was forced to stop reading before I was done and I had time to think about the different clues. They're there if you're sharp enough, and I was going crazy when I figured it out, but it was also amazing the way it's revealed, the way Chaol finds out just when it's too late to stop things from happening, things he set in motion but would never have had he known the truth.

The blend of action and emotion in this book is just as fantastic as in Throne of Glass. No one but the king is completely evil, and watching Celaena navigate her relationships with Dorian, Chaol, Nehemia, and eventually Archer is at first cautiously tense but eventually rip-roaringly heart-crushing. We don't always know exactly what's going on, but throughout I think I always knew whom she should trust or not, and seeing her fall into traps and subsequent overwhelming grief is just so hard to do. Of course, her tendency to react to grief by aiming a knife at someone's throat gets her into a lot more trouble, but her fearlessness - which we find out comes from a place very different than where we'd think - means that she'll go explore the deepest parts of the castle that scream "stay away" to anyone with a little less courage, and this of course leads to heart-stopping chases, fights, and magical battles.

The next book sees Celaena in a totally new environment, and I can't wait to see how she deals with a completely different part of herself. Book 3, untitled as yet, should be published sometime in 2014 - which is a really long stretch of time and I hope it's more towards the beginning than the end!

Mila 2.0


Author: Debra Driza
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books (HarperCollins)
Released: March 12, 2013
Genre: YA Sci-Fi Thriller
Series: Yes (#2 Renegade)
Source: Library
Mila was never meant to learn the truth about her identity. She was a girl living with her mother in a small Minnesota town. She was supposed to forget her past—that she was built in a secret computer science lab and programmed to do things real people would never do. Now she has no choice but to run—from the dangerous operatives who want her terminated because she knows too much and from a mysterious group that wants to capture her alive and unlock her advanced technology. However, what Mila’s becoming is beyond anyone’s imagination, including her own, and it just might save her life.
The story of finding humanity in yourself when you're actually just a machine - oddly relatable.

I love Mila, for all that she's not even human. Her character is so compelling, which should be a clue right off that she's far more than a machine. Of course, it is because her creators programmed too much emotion into her, but the bits where she realizes that she's becoming more human than they could possibly have imagined, where she goes beyond her programming and stakes a claim to her right to exist, those bits are so powerful. She's a really strong girl, and her humor - which her "mother" points to as proof of her humanity - is sharp and funny. And sarcastic - my favorite kind.

There's plenty of fast-paced action as Mila and her mother are running away, tension and fear underlying all of it but razor-sharp wits and calculation. The airport scene is kind of badass. I love the scenes where she's being tested once they're captured, not only because of Lucas, the guy who's in charge of administering the tests, but because every step of the way, Mila shows how she functions as an emotional human, capable of compassion and terror, and while sometimes that helps her win, sometimes it gets in the way and trips her up - but that's perfect, because without that, she wouldn't get any of our sympathy or deserve to keep existing. Which is of course exactly the opposite of what the scientists are thinking. Oh, and there's plenty of heart-stopping action there, too!

When she finally gets out, the cost is so great that for a moment I thought she might not be able to go on. But she's strong. She's resilient, and she now has a purpose - so watch out scientists, you're gonna be roasted in the next book! And I can't wait to see it happen!

The Girl of Fire and Thorns




Author: Rae Carson
Publisher: Greenwillow (HarperCollins)
Released: September 20, 2011
Genre: YA Fantasy
Series: Yes (#2 Crown of Embers, #3 The Bitter Kingdom)
Source: Library
Elisa is the chosen one. But she is also the younger of two princesses, the one who has never done anything remarkable. She can't see how she ever will. Now, on her sixteenth birthday, she has become the secret wife of a handsome and worldly king—a king whose country is in turmoil. A king who needs the chosen one, not a failure of a princess. And he's not the only one who seeks her. Savage enemies seething with dark magic are hunting her. A daring, determined revolutionary thinks she could be his people's savior. And he looks at her in a way that no man has ever looked at her before. Soon it is not just her life, but her very heart that is at stake. Elisa could be everything to those who need her most. If the prophecy is fulfilled. If she finds the power deep within herself. If she doesn't die young. Most of the chosen do.
This book was recommended to me because I love Robin McKinley's Damar novels. And I immediately saw why. The two series are very similar, though each one has its own unique voice and style. It starts with a girl who thinks she's worthless and winds up being the most important person in the world. Along the way, there's kidnapping, royal marriages, intrigue, budding romance, stark loyalty, friendship, loss...

Elisa is so compelling right from the start, even as she's being obnoxiously insecure and finding comfort in food. I absolutely loved the food aspect, by the way. Because Elisa turns to food so often, there's a ton of mention of food throughout the book, and I loved the inventiveness as some foods were recognizable and some were completely novel and delightfully exotic (I'll pass on the rat soup, though, which apparently Elisa will too!). Her insecurities actually become the point of entry for us to identify with her, and the way the king treats her leaves us as confused as she is. She of course thinks there's a deeper reason for the king marrying her than her beauty, of which she assumes she has none, but when he appears to love her, she begins to tentatively hope. And though the king is far from a bad person, I couldn't help hating him a little as he was so blind to Elisa as a person needing love and acted kind in a way that cut deep.

The Godstone that rests in Elisa's navel is just as confusing. She thinks she gets help and responses from God, but she doubts it also, and she hates it at times for allowing her friends to die when she prays and it sends warmth as if it's accepting her prayer. Her relationship with the Godstone is central to the story, of course, and is essential to her growth.

Humberto is possibly the only person who doesn't act ambiguously. Elisa doesn't trust him at first, but I loved every scene that he was in, because he has such a quiet strength and is such a perfect gentleman. I sort of fell in love with him. Which makes what happens so much harder, of course, and I really hope Elisa finds a way out of it in the next book - like in the first few pages, maybe, please? Though I know that's not really possible.

But the main part of Elisa's journey is discovering her own worth and rising to the challenge presented to her, and I think her realization at the end of the book about the connection between her being chosen and her choosing to act is so heartwarming. And I can't wait to find out how it all plays out further...

This Is How I Find Her



Author: Sara Polsky
Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company
Released: September 1, 2013
Genre: YA Contemporary
Series: No
Source: Library
Sophie Canon has just started her junior year when her mother tries to kill herself. Sophie has always lived her life in the shadow of her mother's bipolar disorder, monitoring her medication, rushing home after school to check on her instead of spending time with friends, and keeping her mother's diagnosis secret from everyone outside their family. But when the overdose lands Sophie's mother in the hospital, Sophie no longer has to watch over her. She moves in with her aunt, uncle, and cousin, from whom she has been estranged for the past five years. Rolling her suitcase across town to her family's house is easy. What's harder is figuring out how to build her own life.
I love this book. It made me cry countless times. Much more than a story about living with a family member's bipolar disorder, it's about figuring out when it's ok to give and give and give to someone who really needs help, and when it's time to start taking things for yourself and step back from being the pillar that person leans on. Because it's really heartbreaking that Sophie has had to take charge of someone else's problems when she was as young as 11, and that she was never able to have a normal teenage life because of it. Of course, her aunt should have been there and she made some very bad choices herself, but even her aunt shouldn't have to deal with it, which by the end of the book everyone, including Sophie's mother, realizes. The other characters' interactions strengthen this idea, both Sophie's cousin Leila and their friend James. The most heartwrenching moment, though, is when some kids present an English project that should never have been approved, because regardless of whether anyone in the class has dealt with suicide, making jokes about such serious subjects is disgusting. This book has so many subtle (or not so subtle) "lessons," aside from telling a deeply compelling story about a young girl's journey to find herself and climb out of the debris that has been her life up till then.