Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Review: Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen

So many feels about this book! I will try and keep it as non-squealy and non-fangirly as possible, but it's hard because I loved this book SO, SO much. I usually fly through books, but with this one, I took it slow until the last hundred pages and I just couldn't stop reading. And I laughed and cried and everything in between. It was simply fantastic and beautifully written.

Saint Anything tells the story of Sydney Stanford, a 17-year old girl suffering through the guilt of her older brother Peyton's actions, whose fall from the popular and seemingly confident perfect guy, son and brother tears apart her family. In the aftermath of his prison sentencing, Sydney transfers to a public school from prep, meeting a new group of friends. She meets Laylah, the flighty best friend with a refined taste for French fries, and Mac, her dependable and sweet older brother in particular, who become a new family for her when her mom and dad are too preoccupied with Peyton to help and see her in the way she needs to be helped and seen.

There are no shortage of great things to say about this book, but I'll start with the characters. I LOVED all of the characters in this book. Sydney was a gorgeously voiced narrator. The way Dessen wrote it, I could feel her emotions as she struggled and those feelings came across as honest, raw and true. Sydney is the kind of character I think any reader can relate to because all of her emotions felt very human.

And then there were the Chatham's with their perfect mix of quirkiness, reliability and working class charm. The scene of the party at their house is one of my favorites because you can feel the love and sense of togetherness in that house radiate off the pages. I loved Mrs. Chatham and Rosie in particular, wishing there was just a little more of them in the book.

Mac is definitely in my top ten list of YA fiction crushes. He was just so sweet and so dependable, but also slightly flawed. You must read for this lovely, subtle and innocent romance. I don't want to give a thing away except that Dessen presents a teen romance that doesn't feel rushed or far fetched. It felt just right.

I don't give a lot of thought to likability to characters in my reviews. It's just not something I really care about when reading a book. I mean, I liked Mac and hated Mrs. Stanford and definitely felt those emotions as I was reading, but I was still able to appreciate their function within the narrative and it doesn't really affect my opinion of the story unless it's terribly distracting. I don't think an unlikable character ruins a book but I could see why some people might find Laylah a little unlikable and that interested me because I could see both sides of it. I'd be interested to see what other people think about her part in the story, so feel free to comment below.

I also really loved what Dessen did with themes of family and friendship in this novel. Dessen captures the fact that while family is still important to us as teenagers and when we are going through rough times, it is often the new friends and bonds we create during these times that carry us through. However, I also loved how the dynamics of Sydney's own family developed both with her parents and her incarcerated older brother. Very well done.

Overall, the plot felt tight. At times it was maybe a little unbelievable how much freedom Mrs. Stanford gave Sydney at some points in the middle, but overall Dessen succeeded at writing a story that flowed logically and pulled at each of my heartstrings. I cannot recommend this lovely, heartbreaking story enough. I don't give 5 out of 5 star reviews very often (only 10 or so ever) but this book certainly deserves it.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, June 1, 2015

10 Things I Learned as a First Timer at BookCon

This past Sunday, I went to BookCon at the Javits Center in New York City for the first time. Overall, my reaction was WHY DIDN'T I GO BEFORE??? Because I'm close. It only took me about 45 minutes to get from my front door into the Javits Center. I stayed the entire day, saw and talked to some amazing authors, got some epic books and swag and left with a more positive impression that I possibly imagined. I've always been a fan of top ten lists, so here are the 10 things I learned and enjoyed during my experience there:

10. I Got to Share Something That I REALLY Love with my Mom
I saw a lot of mother-daughter pairs at BookCon and that was really touching. I went with my mom and I love going to book events with her. She gets to see me in a place where I really love everything going on and there are tons of books and authors. I get REALLY excited, like when I started squealing because I saw the Welcome to BookCon sign. Plus, she's super supportive of me going to college for an English major and then trying to work in some area of media or publishing, for which I'm super grateful. She was also great with going to tables to look for books and swag for me and waiting on super long lines, so thanks mom. I had a great time.

9. The Lines Could Actually Be Really Fun
Based on what I saw on Twitter in the days leading up to BookCon, I expected to wait in a ton of lines. But they could actually be fun. I only waited in two lines all day (I didn't do any of the author signings, though). I did the First in Line Penguin Random House Breakfast (See #8) and the line when I first came in to get on the show floor. I met a friend on line both times and I made new friends on the lines as well. It's always fun to fangirl over new books with awesome people.

8. The First in Line Penguin Breakfast
I could only stay at the breakfast for about five-ish minutes after I got there (after an hour and ten minutes in line) but it was worth it. I got an awesome tote bag, a signed copy of All the Bright Places for a friend and some cool arcs including Another Day by David Levithan.

7. I Got in Touch with My Inner Child
I loved the children's book characters they had walking around. It was almost like being at a bookish version of Disney World without the autograph books (only autographed books). My favorite was taking a picture with the Cat and the Hat.

6. This Conversation (aka Don't Awkwardly Walk Up to Erotic Fiction Booths)
Me: *sees a bunch of people so I go up and check it out but doesn't really register anything*
Lady at Booth: *scowls* You realize this is an erotic fiction table right?
Me: *realizing I look 14* Oh, I'm 20.
Lady at Booth: *blank expression* Oh, um...you look younger.
Me: I know. Well, have a nice day! *scurries off*
OOPS!!! But seriously, everyone at all of the booths were SUPER nice.

5. I Was Only in ONE Stampede
One of my biggest hesitations about attending BEA/BookCon in the past had been the crowds. I am not a chaotic crowd kind of person. There is absolutely nothing I enjoy about feeling stuck in a swarm of people or being unable to move out of a crowd when I've had enough. So naturally, I was a little worried. I am happy to report, however, that this only happened to me once during the entire day, which I guess wasn't SO, SO bad.

4. Free Books!!
I don't really think this one needs an explanation. As a massive "Thank You!" I'm going to try and review most, if not all of the books I got at BookCon in the coming weeks on my blog. :)

3. The One Panel I Went to Was SUPER Awesome
The only panel I made it to during the day was the Kick Off Your Summer with Kick Ass YA Reads from Jodi Picoult, Samantha van Leer, David Levithan, E. Lockhart, Jennifer Niven, Nicola Yoon and Med Wolitzer. It was amazing to see all of these authors talk about YA writing, writing from the POV of teens and more. I'm definitely glad I was able to make it!

2. What Brought Me to BookCon
So a few months ago, I actively said that I wouldn't be going to BookCon. I hadn't gone in the past and I was super nervous about the crowds. But then one of my favorite authors, Adi Alsaid, announced a fan art contest on his website with the prize being to have one fan sit at one of his signings and doodle on his coffee cup. And okay, I've always liked drawing and I've never done fan art, so I figured I would enter. I mean, I never had ANY expectation of winning. I thought there would be a ton of entries and whatnot, but I did and the experience was amazing. It was cool to have the "behind the scenes" view of a book signing. And doodling on a coffee cup was way cooler than I expected. The Sharpies blended really well on the plastic. And of course I'm super grateful to Adi and Harlequin Teen for the experience. Thanks, guys!

1. The Whole Day was Just One Big, Freaking Amazing Experience
I loved the whole day. Seriously. I am inserting my foot in my mouth about not wanting to go and I can't wait to go again in the future. Until then, though, I can't wait to read, review and attend more awesome book events.

BONUS: This picture I took with Emmy Laybourne at the Fierce Reads Spring Fling event at McNally Jackson Books later that night in SoHo. I still can't stop laughing and I NEVER expected to be dressed up as Waldo at any point during the weekend. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

#DoxProbs and YA

When I was a little kid, Patricia Polacco was my hero. The women in her picture books looked like the women in my church with their babushkas and her stories were filled with the sense of family and tradition that I felt in my own church. I'm Americanized Russian Orthodox, so growing up I didn't have the close group of CCD or Jewish School friends a lot of my Catholic and Jewish classmates had. Growing up through high school, I knew maybe five or six other orthodox kids and our experiences varied from Coptic to Russian to Greek to anywhere in between.

Once I started reading YA, I didn't have another Patricia Polacco to look up to. I'm religious but I've never been religious. I was kind of the black sheep of my Sunday school class, where I've grown up with three or four fairly close orthodox friends who've known me since I was in a diaper. We're the friends that don't have to talk regularly. We're connected by something else I guess. From time to time I would get sad because it felt like my experiences didn't matter. I was different after all, but I've always felt an ache for even subtly Orthodox characters in YA. Sure, it's a bit of a side thread in The Vampire Academy novels, but I've never really been into those books. Where are the Dox kids in realistic YA or dystopian? Why are the only Dox YAs about the Romanov's or a past culture I feel very little connection to? Where are the protagonists who are frustrated with two hour church services on Sundays and tired and cranky during Lent? We need diverse books, even for the few and far between Dox kids?

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review: Love and Profanity, Edited by Nick Healy

Happy Short Story Month everyone! (These are technically essays, but they read like short stories, so I'm counting it as my short story read for the month)

I picked up my copy of Love and Profanity: True, Tortured, Wild, Hilarious, and Intense Tales of Teenage Life at my local independent book store. Yay! And yeah, that's a ton of adjectives to have in a title, but the stories in this volume really lived up to it.

I'm not really a short story or an essay person, I'll be honest, so I was even more impressed that I really loved the stories here. It was interesting to see the real stories of childhood by some authors I recognized (namely Pete Hautman, who wrote several young adult novels I've enjoyed, and Jon Scieszka, who wrote my favorite picture book ever). Short stories don't fulfill my craving for longterm character growth and development and yet, I felt like I got a little taste of that growth and development in each of these stories in its own way.

The range of the stories was really impressive. This volume had everything from tales of bullying, triumph, sadness, joy and happiness. The order and separation of the stories made sense, which I've found to be a challenge in order short story collections that I've read.

There are forty-three stories in the volume, the longest only a couple of pages. They each offer a moment-long glimpse into the live of another person, another writer, another teen experience. At times the stories seemed to demand my complicity and other times they seemed wrongly voyeuristic, most so in the story "Saying Goodbye to Anna," the tale of a teen overcoming anorexia.

The writing styles also varied quite a bit. Some stories felt incomplete while others filled me with emotion, be it happiness or sadness. Some were eloquent, while others were gritty. They all felt to be a little bit nostalgic and most felt a little dated, but in a good way. The datedness and the fact that I could still relate to these stories made me feel like yes, there are some parts of the teen experience that are indeed universal, carrying across time and space.

I enjoyed seeing perspectives from a variety of types of writers: everything from bloggers to picture book writers to teen writers and everything in between. Finding this in the young adult section of a bookstore, I expected there to be more stories by teen writers I recognized, but I enjoyed looking up some of these authors after I finished the book.

Each story felt like a new experience, a new glimpse. And yet they were all threaded together into four parts and one cohesive volume. I would recommend this collection of diverse, vibrant stories to anyone who enjoys short stories or enjoys reading about teen life. Read for several stories about love, friendship, heartbreak, isolation and ultimately growing up.

4/5 stars

Friday, May 8, 2015

Review: Wildlife by Fiona Wood

Review of Wildlife by Fiona Wood

4/5 stars

Wildlife by Fiona Wood. Image from amazon.com
With the abundance of technology these days, it seems that books embracing the big outdoors and the impact of nature on the mind and body are becoming a rarity. However, every now and then, a story that embraces spending time outside and allowing drama to play out in the elements instead of within a traditional high school or a dystopian society emerges. Fiona Wood’s novel Wildlife does just that, creating a story that is simultaneously quirky, smartly written and wildly entertaining.

One of the novel’s biggest strengths, as well as one of its biggest weaknesses, were the characters. The novel is told from the alternating first person point of views of Lou, a girl trying to get over the tragic death of her boyfriend Fred, and Sibylla, a girl who is suffering the consequences of a perfume photo shoot that resulted in her face being plastered onto a giant billboard. The girls’ lives converge when they are assigned to the same cabin on the outdoor campus of their private high school, where they are required to spend a term in the great outdoors rather than the crowded city of Melbourne.

Lou and Sibylla are endearing, complex and funny characters that the reader will root for. Lou’s dry sense of humor will have readers snickering while some of Sibylla’s actions will have the reader wishing they could reach into the book and give her a shove in the right direction.

The drama and romance wasn’t overdone. Wood succeeded in creating a balance between steamy, outdoor romance and everyday teenage drama in a way that makes this book wildly enjoyable to read. Sibylla and Lou are a major piece of the puzzle leading to that success.

The secondary characters, however, felt flat and one-dimensional. Sibylla’s best friend Holly was the typical toxic best friend that you have to learn to grow away from. Her boyfriend Ben is the typical popular guy that the protagonist of teen novels often seems to end up with. Still, these characters were terrible and they certainly had their own humorous, touching or downright aggravating moments.

While Wood may have met difficulty in the department of secondary characters, her writing style was absolutely the strength of this novel. The way she was able to capture the inner voice of a fifteen-year-old girl, and the fifteen-year-old girl in all of us, was remarkable. First person perspective was used the way it was meant to. Readers will feel themselves experiencing everything that Lou and Sibylla are as they experience it. They will be just as surprised as the girls are at every turn in this twisting and suspenseful tale.

The setting was another fun element of this novel that simply worked well. Camp stories are common, but books that somehow manage to blend camp, the outdoors and high school together are a rarity. The setting of the outdoor campus almost feels like a character itself in this novel, one that manipulates and shapes the characters that the girls and their friends become by the end of the novel. It is also detailed, without being overdone.

Overall, Wildlife is a slightly bizarre mix of strained friendships, first loves, soul mates, the outdoors, and discovering yourself in an unfamiliar place. Yet, it works, and the result is an amazing YA contemporary novel. This book is for anyone who wants to escape to the bush of Australia for an afternoon and relive the way we fall in and out love, friendships and grief.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Review: Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid

I know it's super early for this review, but hey, just spreading the word about an amazing book. I kept it spoiler free too, so enjoy! P.S. I read this book as part of Adi's arc tour, which was awesome!

Never Always Sometimes by Adi Alsaid
Image from goodreads.com
High school is more full of clichés than it is with students. A lot of contemporary YA novels avoid these clichés like the plague while others mix them in naturalistically with a cast of characters on their own spectrum of cliché. In his upcoming novel Never Always Sometimes, which comes out on August 4th, author Adi Alsaid faces the clichés that define high school head on with an unforgettably quirky cast of characters and a meticulously defined setting.

Dave and Julia, the quintessential joined-at-the-hip best friend teen duo, write a list of things never to do in high school shortly before they become freshmen. When they re-discover the list towards the end of their senior year, they decide to complete the items on the list, embracing the ordinary things teenagers do instead of their usual isolated plans.

Dave is funny, insightful and real. He isn't just the typical guy following his eccentric best friend around like a puppy dog. He is open-minded, observant and smart. The first part of the novel, telling his side of the story in the third person (as the whole novel is) felt grounded, relaxed and intriguing. There were times where I laughed with him, felt his pain and wanted to shake him and yell, "STOP THAT!" But overall, he was relatable, mostly likable and felt like someone I would be interested getting to know in person. He held my interest and I was interested in his story because his thoughts felt real and I was emotionally invested in his longing for Julia from the very first page.

Speaking of Julia, she is a whirlwind of energy, passion and bright pink hair dye. By far my favorite character in the novel, she felt like the character with the most wit and the most to lose. The story of her mother and two dads was endearing. I saw a lot of myself in her, and I think anyone who has ever rebelled against their past, their present or their future will relate to her. Her banter was funny, her actions reckless. The parts with Mr. Marroney were by far my favorite. You'll have to read to find out what happens there. I don't want to spoil that.

I can see how she might not be the novel's most likable character, but she felt the most honestly written and real. The only problem I saw with her character is that it made Gretchen, who Dave meets at a party, and one of the other more developed characters, fall a little to the background. This isn't necessarily a problem, but it would have been nice to see her come through a little more.

The humor between Dave and Julia was excellently written. Alsaid is a master of writing easy-flowing dialogue that is smart, catchy and entertaining. Even the scenes that were the hardest to read because I was doubled over laughing or cringing from the consequences I knew were in the pages to come were well done. Alsaid's relaxed, modern style makes Never Always Sometimes a fun summer read, even as it raises difficult questions about the way we judge people and the emotions we feel in high school.

But perhaps my favorite part about this book was the setting. I haven't been to California before, but Alsaid's novel and his descriptions of the place, the sunsets, Dave and Julia's room, made me feel was there. Everything felt present, immediate and real in the novel. At times, it was the setting that was the driving force in keeping me turning the pages.

My only critique of this brilliantly written novel is that some of the loose ends in the plot left me wanting more. I wanted to know more about Julia's dads, what happened to her bizarrely fun mother, more about Dave's mother and his relationship with his dad. What ever happened to some of the kids at the party they went to? My other small concern was I thought the whole not dating your best friend line on the list would have been more of an issue from the very beginning. Still, it's an amazing story.

Never Always Sometimes is the perfect summer read. Since I loved Let's Get Lost and thought that was the perfect summer read last year, I was a little worried that I'd be disappointed. I wasn't, however, and whether or not you've read Let's Get Lost, Alsaid's new book is a great book that demands to be read on a late summer night. Whether you're in high school now, just graduated, in college or beyond, read this book and laugh and cry at the end like I did.

4.5 stars

Monday, May 4, 2015

So many books, so little time! A Belated Spring Break Review Post

I never got around to posting this during Spring Break, but these books were amazing so here it is:
To me, Spring Break is not about heading down to Florida and guzzling down as much beer as I can in a short period of time. That sounds awful. Instead, it's a week where I get a short reprieve from the daily grind of college life and a chance to read some amazing books. Here's a wrap of of the books I read throughout the week and my thoughts on them. Enjoy!

1. Vanishing Girls by Lauren Oliver (4.5 stars)
Sigh...I really loved this one. It was beautifully descriptive and the amount of visual detail was stunning. The story-a tale of two sisters, Dara and Nick, who used to be close but grew apart after Dara started hooking up with their childhood neighbor and buddy Parker-was lovely and tragic. The characters were unlikable at times but complex and fun. I'll admit I liked seemingly balanced Nick over reckless Dara a little more, but even the secondary characters were funny and well developed. Their divorced parents were messed up, but slightly sympathetic. Their high school friends felt authentic. The quirky bunch that worked at the amusement park was slightly reminiscent of The Way, Way Back water park crew. The setting was descriptive and distinct. The twists were slightly predictable at times, but some still managed to catch me off guard. You'll have to remember to breath and slide back from the edge of your seat by the end. Overall, this book is a well-written hot mess of a story, a thrill from start to finish and one you won't want to put down until the last page.

2. Control by Lydia Kang (4 stars)
I was a little skeptical of this one at first. I'm into science, but I'm not INTO science. But the cover of this book was pretty and that's at least half of why I decided to buy it (good job cover designers!). Control is about a teenage girl named Zelia who is in a desperate race to save her sister Dylia after a tragic accident that lands the two of them in separate foster homes. Zelia is in a quirky home for peculiar genetically mutated teenagers and Dylia is in a sweatshop/prison for the genetically wrong, but potentially valuable. It's set in the future and while some of the technology and science wasn't always totally believable, it was certainly cool. Zelia was definitely a strong character as were some of her housemates, but Dylia's character fell a little flat for me and the ending felt just a little rushed. Stylistically, the novel was very well written and read seamlessly from start to finish. There were enough twists and turns to keep me flipping the pages and the ending was equally frustrating, sweet and tragic. Definite point for throwing in a reference to one of the most beautiful cantos of The Divine Comedy. Overall, a great read that left me sobbing by the end and one that you should all try too, even if science fiction isn't your first pick.

3. Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis by Rowan Jacobsen (4.5 stars)
Okay, this one doesn't really count but it kind of does. It's for school but it wasn't assigned. I read it to gain more knowledge for an interdisciplinary art and environmental studies course I'm taking. I'm doing my project on honey bees and this just seemed like a non-sciency science book I could learn a lot from. And I'll admit, it's one of the best non-fiction books I've read. Funny, informative and clearly written so that even someone who has a head for art and literature, not science, can understand it. This isn't just a list of facts about bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. No, it's a riveting narrative of how we got to this point, this crisis, and it's a call to action. Filled with useful data, first-hand accounts from beekeepers and interesting examples, this is an eye-opening read that will make you just a little more grateful for the food you eat and the little insects that fly around your garden.

4. Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard (4.75 stars)
I wanted to scream, cry and curl into a ball when I finished this book. It was a heart wrenching and poignantly dramatic novel that has a little bit of everything: violence, intrigue, spies, betrayal, romance and a thrilling underdog narrative. Mare Barrow, the novel's harrowing, is a Red. She comes from nothing and has nothing, facing a dismal fate in the army, a pawn to the rich and powerful Silvers. Meanwhile, a rebellion is underfoot. When the rebellion, Mare and the secretive world of the rich and powerful collide, what ensues is a riveting and breathless tale of secret powers, secret alliances and secret enemies. You won't be able to put this book down and surprise, it's the first of the trilogy. Perfectly paced and delicately written, this tale will leave you breathless and wanting the next part of the story. You will love characters you didn't expect and hate ones you expected even less. There are turns around every corner, so this is a must read for anyone who loves drama and suspense.

5. Mosquito Land by David Arnold (5 stars)
Mim Malone, a quirky and lovable teenager, goes on an epic road trip to find her mom, who she thinks is sick. Chaos and tragedy ensues on a cross country journey that will make readers cheer for the half-blind heroine at the center of this novel. This book was amazing and weird and I just devoured it in a few hours. The writing style was raw, yet eloquent times. I cried and laughed out loud while reading because the setting, conflict and characters all came together in a coherent way. The romance was a little odd at times, but touchingly sweet and seemingly real. The characters are well-developed, it was fun to read and beautifully written. If you're looking for a quirky but sweet and touching novel, then this is the one for you. This book touches upon all the classic themes of adolescence, taking its own spin as well: love, friendship, family, the awkwardness of still being a kid but feeling like an adult. Overall, this was my favorite of the books I read over spring break.