Friday, April 29, 2016

Review: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Title: Tell Me Three Things

Author: Julie Buxbaum 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Tell Me Three Things is Buxbaum's debut into Young Adult fiction but it reads like the work of a seasoned author. I would have completely overlooked this novel if it hadn't been for Maja's stellar review of it, just a few weeks ago, and I'm so glad I gave this volume a chance. Jessie, a junior in high school whose biggest problems in life should be preparing for her SATs, has just moved to LA. Within weeks of her mother passing away, he joined a bereavement group, fell in love, got married, and is now moving Jessie away from public school in Chicago to Wood Valley where she sticks out like a sore thumb. On the first day she arrives, though, Jessie receives a mysterious e-mail from Somebody Nobody, an anonymous boy who helps Jessie navigate the complex hierarchies at Wood Valley. But who is SN? And why does he refuse to meet Jessie in person?

Frankly, the mystery behind Somebody Nobody--though cute and extremely a la "You've Got Mail"--is just a tad bit predictable. But, that doesn't take away from the crux of the story whatsoever. The identity of Somebody Nobody isn't as important as his friendship with Jessie or her endless theories on who he might be. Is it Liam, the lead singer of OVille whom Dri, Jessie's new friend, is majorly crushing on? Is it Caleb, Liam's friend and an occasional song-writer on the band? Or it is Ethan, Jessie's partner in English class and the guy she can't get out of her head? I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jessie navigate through the mystery of SN alongside her newly founded relationships with friends and acquaintances in Wood Valley.

But, the best part about Tell Me Three Things is not this mystery; it's merely Jessie. Jessie's grief over losing her mother is present and palpable. It isn't an overbearing type of sadness that permeates the book--after all, Jessie is doing her best to move on and acclimate to her new life--but she cannot forget her mother, which is natural. Her stepmother, Rachel, is busy and often aloof and her stepbrother, Theo, is equally confused by the turn of events which find him with a new father and Jessie with a new mother. Thus, Jessie's journey to continue forward each day, all while missing her best friend, Scarlet, from back home and yearning for her old life--one in which her mother existed--is admirable. I loved Jessie's voice from the beginning and her honesty and genuine kindness are nothing short of lovely. She isn't a perfect heroine, which I love, but she's a protagonist who never gives up and learns from her mistakes to be better.

Jessie's relationship with her father, too, is a definite highlight. At first, she is simply shocked by his actions but, slowly, that numbness turns into anger as she demands answers. Why has her father forgotten her? Why didn't he consult her before moving her across the country? Why is he so focused on his grief that he has forgotten about hers? It's difficult to watch Jessie realize that her father is human as well--that despite the fact that he is an adult, he absolutely does not have it all together. I think that's one of the hardest lessons every teenager learns as they grow up and Jessie comes to that realization as well, during some of the hardest moments of her life. But the progression of her relationship with her father is well-timed and realistic. I enjoyed how Tell Me Three Things didn't end with a neatly wrapped-up bow when it came to Jessie's new family. She is still figuring things out with her stepmother, her stepbrother, and her father but everything is going to be OK, slowly but surely.

There's a similar sense of resolution with Jessie's social and academic life at school. Her new friends are supportive and immediately include her, trusting her with their secrets and sharing their opinions on sex, boys, and life in general. I give Buxbaum kudos for writing multiple sex-positive discussions that occur between Jessie and her friends, whether her new ones like Dri and Agnes in Wood Valley or her old ones like Scarlet in Chicago. I think it's just as important to show young girls that it's normal and healthy to talk about sex, not just be having it, and to have your own opinions about it that may differ from that of your friends. Jessie's boy troubles come to a rather hilarious conclusion and though I can't say too much more without fear of spoilers, I will say that the slow-burn romance and friendship at the core of this story is swoon-worthy. Moreover, Jessie's friendship with SN isn't merely about the romance--it's about sharing their life stories and accepting that difficult things happen in life, even to young people.

Tell Me Three Things is a powerful, truly memorable novel. Buxbaum writes a beautiful note at the end of the story, detailing her inspiration to write this piece and I have to say that I am immensely thankful that she wrote this. We are inundated with grief novels in YA and though they are necessary, I appreciate that Buxbaum wrote this not necessarily as a story about cycling through the seven stages of grief but rather as a novel about dealing with the aftermath of death and accepting that life doesn't stop for anyone. Jessie's mourning is an important aspect of this novel, but so is her growth as a teenager, her relationships with new friends and family members, and her self-realization about romance, her father, and so much more. It's a truly gorgeous blend of life and though this won't be a read I return to, this is going to be an author I eagerly watch out for. I hope Buxbaum is here to stay in the YA genre--she effortlessly writes non-awkward chapters consisting merely of texts, which, let me assure, is no easy task--and is a fresh voice that this genre definitely needs. Tell Me Three Things is poignant and refreshing; you'll fall in love with it, I guarantee.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

Title: Summer Skin

Author: Kirsty Eagar

Rating: 5 Stars

Summer Skin is the type of New Adult novel I've been waiting to be written; a book that is sexy, passes the Bechdel test, and discusses feminism without shame or pretense. It's a story of two rival schools--Unity, co-ed, and Knights, all-male and distinctly elite. Last year the Knights men made a bet to sleep with a Unity freshman and this year, the Unity girls are out for revenge. The story opens with Jess, a Unity girl, sneaking onto the Knights campus to steal a Knights jersey--the prize for the Unity who humiliates a Knights man the most on the night of their annual toga party. But Jess is seen by Blondie, an arrogant Knights guy who she can't seem to get out of her head and when she encounters him again at the toga party, that's when the fun truly begins.

Jess and Blondie have a crazy relationship. It's messy and isn't perfect, which I love. They'll be in a middle of a steamy scene and suddenly it'll get awkward or uncomfortable and it all felt so desperately real that I couldn't help but love each and every moment of this book. Plus, the majority of their relationship lies in their conversations trying to understand one another. To Jess, Mitch (Blondie) seems to be just another Knights guy--willing to use women for sex without sustaining a relationship with them first--and Jess wants to be more than that. But also, she doesn't want to judge Mitch for his actions or the women he's been with for their decisions. Just because she requires more than a nameless face for sex doesn't mean that everyone does. But that concept of feminism--of women owning their agency--is so difficult to internalize.

This book is all about understanding what it means to be a feminist and using that definition however you see fit; for Jess that means that she doesn't feel comfortable having sex unless she has some sort of relationship with the person, for her friends it means entirely different things and their difficulty navigating those waters is what makes this such a phenomenal story. There's one scene in particular where Jess is talking to her Instagram famous friend about her insecurities--why does her friend constantly feel the need to post on Instagram?--and she admits that though she has judged her friend, she also admires her. I think that's the crux of discovering feminism at any point in your life--you judge others for their actions, whether it be their sexual liberty or their lack of sexual actions--but you're also torn between admiring them and wanting to be them as well. It's so hard to be okay with being you and rationalizing your own decisions to yourself, especially when the whole world seems to be of a different opinion, so I really love that we get to explore this tension with Jess in such an authentic manner.

Mitch, too, isn't all he seems on paper. The guy is screwed up--won't kiss, won't have sex, definitely will touch--but his relationship with Jess evolves and changes with time which I appreciate. It's difficult and certainly not an easy slope to climb but I enjoyed getting a glimpse into his world as well--the pressures he faces from guys around him, the way his friends think about women, etc. It isn't easy to be a feminist and be a man. We think it is but sometimes, society and circumstances are built in such a way that it's so hard for men to break out of their molds, too. Like Jess, I'd often sway between frustration and swoon when it came to Mitch but by the end, I understood his perspective too do, kudos to Eagar for not making this one-sided and flat but instead turning this three-dimensional and complex and all-too-real.

Summer Skin is so, so good. It features healthy discussions about sex, not just with partners but also with friends and adults. It centers around Jess and Mitch's relationship but also revolves around them individually and their struggles with friendship and college and figuring out what they want. Plus, there's the tension between Unity and Knights that persists throughout, the forbidden element of Jess and Mitch's affair, not to mention Eagar's distinct writing style that never fails to amaze me. I only wish similar books were being written with different characters and different races and genders and socio-economic statuses so that we'd have a whole slew of novels that discussed feminism and sex so that teens didn't have to feel so alone when they glanced at their bookshelves. But maybe this is the start of that revolution; I certainly hope so.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: When We Collided by Emery Lord

Title: When We Collided

Author: Emery Lord

Rating: 3 Stars

There is no doubt in my mind that When We Collided is a beautiful, important story—a milestone in YA, even. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I have extremely mixed feelings towards this novel.

The Good:
- Jonah, the youngest of the three older siblings in a family of six children, is an old soul at the age of seventeen. After the sudden death of his father, his mother has been tired and unresponsive, constantly crying and unable to take care of her family. It has fallen to Naomi, Silas, and Jonah to take care of their three younger siblings, Bekah, Isaac, and Leah. It is tiring, thankless work and all Jonah wants is for his mother to be a parent, again, so he can go back to worrying about classes and girls like the rest of his friends; so he can join the baseball team and think of a future outside of Verona Cove, California.

I loved Jonah. His grief over losing his father, the pain he carries within him, is heartbreaking and it’s impossible not to fall for him, especially when he’s constantly looking out for his siblings and continuing his passion of cooking, carrying on his father’s restaurant legacy. Jonah’s growth over the course of the novel is realistic and well-timed. I couldn’t get enough of his interactions with his siblings and Ellie, the daughter of his father’s best friend and business partner. Together, the two of them helped each other and the restaurant to evolve and I appreciated their friendship, sans romance. Easily, Jonah is the highlight of this novel—by far.

- Mental Illness. I give Lord immense credit for writing about mental illness in a respectful, well-researched, and nuanced manner. Whether it be Jonah’s confusion and acceptance as he realizes that his mother is depressed, Ellie’s discussion of her older brother’s battle against depression and his subsequent recovery, or Vivi’s own struggle with bipolar disorder, I found When We Collided to be realistic and honest. Vivi, especially, I think is written beautifully. Her point of view is full of lush, flowery prose; she’s the type of extrovert that makes everyone around her want to be in her orbit and it isn’t hard to enjoy her vivacious personality. But the highs and lows she experiences and the sudden turn-around from lucid to not-quite-there is shocking and makes an impact. It helps that though we know Vivi is battling life, we don’t know what she’s up against and, instead, get to experience it alongside Jonah and other people in Vivi’s life. Separately, both of these characters and their story arcs were strong, powerful messages.

The Not-So-Great:
- More. First and foremost, I have to admit to wanting more from this story on multiple fronts. We don’t hear much about Vivi’s friendships with her friends from back home, nor do we get to see her mother’s journey alongside her own. We also don’t get much of Jonah’s family once his mother is on the mend. It’s patched up a little too neatly on that front and in terms of Vivi, I found myself disappointed that her existence at Verona Cove is so wrapped up with Jonah. Where are her friends, her relationships with her co-worker, her thoughts about the people she has left behind in Seattle? Even for Jonah, though, where are his friends? Jonah and Vivi’s love story is so all-consuming but I wanted a broader picture of their lives, not just together but mostly apart.

- The Romance. I enjoyed this love story, I did, and I even understand why it’s necessary. If Jonah and Vivi had simply been friends then this story wouldn’t have had the impact it did. But the romance progressed quickly and simply felt…off. Perhaps it was meant to feel slightly unhealthy, though? Vivi and Jonah love and support one another but there are also moments where Vivi seems to manipulate Jonah or Jonah takes advantage of a situation presented to him. They aren’t bad people but their romance felt weird to me in so many scenes and though some of that is because of the mental illness Vivi lives with, it also felt like something more. Like I said, I liked this romance—it’s well-written and captures that summer whirl-wind feeling—but I couldn’t really get into much of the novel since the plot revolves around this romance and it wasn’t one I loved or particularly wanted to revisit.

There is a LOT of good in this novel, countered by just a few odd blips, but as someone who has loved Lord’s previous novels, I found myself disappointed that her latest wouldn’t be making my favorites shelves. I think this is a book a lot of readers will love, though, and I’m glad this message about mental illness is reaching a wider audience. For that reason alone, this novel is worth a read.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Review: The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski

Title: The Winner's Kiss (The Winner's Curse, #3)

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Rating: 5 Stars

I’ve struggled to write this review. Is this only the second time I’m re-writing it? It’s hard to tell. The Winner’s Kiss has occupied nearly all of my brain capacity since I picked it up and it hasn’t left me, even now that I’ve set it down. Rutkoski’s world has been bold and brilliant ever since The Winner’s Curse; this I knew. The Winner’s Crime only confirmed that her characters were passionate, vulnerable, and clever—a deadly combination if ever there was one. But The Winner’s Kiss is a seamless blend of romance and politics, infusing the best of this world and its people with a heart-stopping plot that ensures that though this series is truly at an end, its words will live on.

I’ve wanted Rutkoski to challenge her characters and push them beyond their comfort zone ever since first encountering them on the auction block of The Winner’s Curse. While they were intelligent and witty, motivated and brave even back then, I knew that they had the potential to be so much more. Finally, we see the darker underbelly of this world—its ruthlessness both on and off the battlefield. The Kestrel and Arin of The Winner’s Kiss are far different characters from those we have encountered before. In some ways, it’s safe to say that they hardly know themselves, let alone each other. The highlight of this novel, by far, was watching them navigate their memories—the past they thought they knew—and reconciling it with the present before them.

Their relationship has been a slow-start from the beginning and that isn’t an exception in this final installment but, seeing Kestrel and Arin interact in a setting wholly free of society’s shackles was refreshing. We get to finally see these two simply be and that, in and of itself, is a treat. Kestrel’s struggles throughout this novel are intense and painful, but also necessary. I understood her better outside the walls of the palace and I appreciated that Rutkoski didn’t make things easy for the daughter of the general. We see Kestrel become forced to assimilate within an army where she is the only Valorian among Herrani and Dacran alike. We see her face off her complicated emotions towards her father and the life he would have chosen for her—no easy task, especially when this is a relationship that has been complicated and nuanced from the start. With Arin, we experience a different set of challenges—his innate goodness contrasted with his skills on the battlefield; his vulnerability being pushed aside time and time in favor of the cold hard exterior of a leader; his willingness to trust contrasted against his history of mistakes. Neither Kestrel nor Arin are at a perfect place in their lives but watching them come to terms with one another, and themselves, is easily the best part about The Winner’s Kiss.

Roshar, the eastern prince who has allied himself with Arin, is the hidden gem of this series. Unfortunately, we don’t see much of Roshar in the first two installments of this trilogy but, finally, in The Winner’s Kiss we are able to experience him in all of his glory. Roshar is witty, always ready to crack a joke rather than discuss anything serious, but behind his veneer of laziness and nonchalance is a cunning mind whose allegiances are mysterious. What does Roshar hope to gain from helping the Herrani escape their masters? It’s unclear, which makes Roshar a dangerous character. Yet, I challenge you to cast doubt upon him and truly suspect him for more than a page before admiring and adoring him, again. His friendship with Arin is a bromance of the ages and his relationship with Kestrel, though unexpected, is another special aspect of this novel. Moreover, I enjoyed that through Roshar we are able to appreciate the full strength of Rutkoski’s world-building. The East is vastly different from the West but their animals, plants, poisons, customs, and rituals are not only fascinating, but relevant.

I have so much admiration for how Rutkoski uses every detail of her novels in an important way. Whether it be her battle scenes, tactical machinations revealing more about the characters than gritty details of bloodshed, or the political maneuvers made by these characters, every scene is intricately plotted. Truly, I couldn’t have envisioned a more apt way to end this story and the ending is perfection. I haven’t always loved this series and I’ve definitely felt as if the hype was unwarranted, at least once or twice, but The Winner’s Kiss makes it all worth it. Not only is this series achingly romantic, but it’s smart—it features strong characters, a brilliant heroine who embodies her agency in the strength of her mind, and a world whose politics can draw parallels to our own world (if we only looked hard enough). Thank you for this world and its characters, Ms. Rutkoski; they won’t be leaving me anytime soon.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Review: Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

Title: Passenger (Passenger, #1)

Author: Alexandra Bracken

Rating: 3 Stars

I fell in love with Alexandra Bracken's debut when I first read it. So much so that I returned it to the library only to check it out a few months later for a re-read and continued on this path until I eventually forced my local Barnes and Noble to order a copy for me and bought it. It's a gorgeous little paperback that still brings me an inordinate amount of joy.

Needless to say, I was expecting great things from Passenger. Despite not having read The Darkest Minds, I knew enough from reviewers that it had been well-liked and I was confident that Bracken's latest would be nothing short of brilliant.

In some ways, it is.

Passenger is about a young violin prodigy named Etta. Growing up with her single-mother, Rose, and violin instructor, Alice, it has been Etta's dream to become a professional violin player. When a performance at the Met goes tragically wrong, however, she is dragged back in time to 1776 by a stranger named Sophia Ironwood. The Ironwoods are one of the last remaining families of time travelers and, according to them, Etta's mother stole an important artifact from them seventeen years ago and went into hiding. Now that they've found her, they're holding Rose hostage until Etta can find the astrolabe and return it to the Ironwoods, all within a span of days.

I am always bowled over by the unique premises of Bracken's work. We haven't encountered a world quite like Passenger in YA fiction and I don't know why. It is a rich, well-developed concept that I thoroughly enjoyed, especially as the introduction of new information was timed perfectly and never felt too much like an info-dump.

What's more, I really appreciate that Bracken took the effort to discuss meaningful issues in her exploration of history and the strides we have since made--or failed to make. Sophia, for instance, is shocked by the freedoms that Etta takes for granted in the 21st century and struggles, throughout the novel, to find agency in a world that disregards women. Nicholas, the young African American sailor who is  abandoned by the Ironwoods, can't believe in a world where he isn't constantly stared at, scrutinized, or thought to be a slave. When Etta travels to places like Damascus, she's shocked at the thought that modern-day Syria isn't the thriving city she's witnessing from the early 1600s. It's a nod to a multitude of issues that plague us, globally, today and I really appreciated it.

But, I don't think it was enough. I wanted Bracken to do more with this set-up; explore different countries and discuss their history or contrast them more with our modern-day world. I wanted her to tackle issues of cultural appropriation, women's rights in different continents (but not through a lens of white feminism), approach economies and wars from a changed perspective. I wanted her to discuss time on a deeper level--that woozy contradiction between destiny and choice that inevitably arises in a time-travel novel. I just wanted MORE.

More than angst-ridden thoughts from Nicholas's (mostly) unnecessary perspective. More than a romance that seemed a little too convenient, a little too like insta-love for me to fully get behind even though I did begin to warm to this couple on multiple occasions. More than paragraphs I wanted to skim through as these two traveled from place to place and time to time as if pulled along by a string with only a few truly notable thoughts and experiences in each. Most of all, more than another sex-positive YA novel that fails to discuss contraception--hello! I really think Etta might wind up pregnant or with STIs in the sequel! Is no one else worried?--and falls back on common tropes.

Passenger isn't a bad book, by any means. It's unique, compelling, and I really love Etta's voice and character. It's a fascinating approach to time travel and is easy to read and simply fall into. But I definitely wanted more from this story, in many ways, and though I'll probably be reading the sequel, I doubt I'll enjoy it much unless aspects of this story change dramatically to produce a much more mature, thoughtful novel. Definitely recommended, just with reservations--this is one I can see a lot of teens loving but perhaps some readers will be a little disappointed, just as I am.