Thursday, February 11, 2016

Review: Boo by Neil Smith

Title: Boo
Author: Neil Smith
Publisher: William Heinemann
Release date: May 12th 2015
Pages: 310
Genre: adult fantasy(?)
Source: Gift from Cornerstone Publicity - thanks!
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When Oliver 'Boo' Dalrymple wakes up in heaven, the eighth-grade science geek thinks he died of a heart defect at his school. But soon after arriving in this hereafter reserved for dead thirteen-year-olds, Boo discovers he’s a 'gommer', a kid who was murdered. What’s more, his killer may also be in heaven. With help from his volatile classmate Johnny, Boo sets out to track down the mysterious Gunboy who cut short both their lives.
In a heart-rending story written to his beloved parents, the odd but endearing Boo relates his astonishing heavenly adventures as he tests the limits of friendship, learns about forgiveness and, finally, makes peace with the boy he once was and the boy he can now be.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is officially marketed towards adult audiences, but I think it has a lot of YA crossover appeal, so I decided to review it on the blog anyways. And I think Boo would be a great read for adult audiences as well as YA readers. It's been compared a lot to The Lovely Bones, and I can definitely see some similarities, but I actually liked Boo a lot better than The Lovely Bones. Rather than following the story on earth from the perspective of a dead person the way The Lovely Bones does, Boo has an actual plot of what happens up in heaven, intricately tied in with what happened on earth before the main character's death. With a captivating mystery, a unique portrayal of the afterlife, and excellent writing and characters, Boo has everything you could ask for.

I loved reading about Neil Smith's take on heaven or the afterlife. At first, the idea that this heaven is only for American thirteen-year-olds seemed a bit contrived and too convenient, but once you suspend your disbelief, it really works. This heaven is a lot closer to our normal lives than most people would describe heaven to be, which means that our earthly logic applies to many aspects of life in heaven, but not all. Boo is fascinated by this and is constantly conducting experiments and trying to figure out what rules apply to life in heaven, which was fascinating to read about. I especially liked how passing into heaven changes some things about people but leaves others the same, which brings up really interesting questions about what about people needs to be "fixed" and what disabilities are really just social constructs.

Boo is a great narrator for this story. For a thirteen-year-old boy, he is very mature, making his narration very introspective, analytical, and straight-to-the-point. His voice is often sarcastic or just questioning of society, which makes for an entertaining narration even in  dire situations. I really grew to love Boo and his random quirks over the course of the novel. The strong voice manages to convey a wide array of emotions: due to the dark subject matter, of course there are scenes that will make you want to cry about the hopelessness of the situation, but there are also plenty of scenes that will make you crack a smile.

Even though I loved pretty much everything about this book, the mystery is what kept me flipping the pages and made me desperate to find out what would happen next. I guessed the final plot twist early on, but I never would have guessed all the plot twists that got us to that point. The suspense had me on the edge of my seat throughout the novel, and I love how the mystery ties in with the unique setting: it's a murder mystery with the added suspense that these are unprecedented events in heaven and that no one really knows what's going to happen, since the rules on earth don't all apply to life in heaven. That element made for a very psychological thriller where you can never really know who's good and who's evil, or what it even means to be good or evil.

What I loved most about Boo is how it combines such a suspenseful story with a ton of moral questions. I can't go into this too much without spoiling things, but the mystery brings up questions of what it means to be good or evil, about punishment and forgiveness, and about mental illness in relation to committing crimes, and so on. The story back on earth also presents a nuanced perspective on bullying and school shootings. All of these issues are addressed in a very open-minded way, complicating our understanding of things rather than getting preachy about the "right" way to look at these issues.

At the end, I was still confused about some things and wanted more answers to all of the questions the novel poses. But in a way, I didn't mind this confusion, because it mirrors Boo's confusion about what has happened and our own lack of knowing about the afterlife, and even many elements of life on earth. This novel gives no simple answers, which can be frustrating at times but really just makes sense with this type of story.

If you're looking for a thought-provoking read that combines a unique, suspenseful story with a lot of deeper questions, Boo is the book for you. I absolutely loved the writing, the characters, the suspenseful plot, the intriguing perspective on the afterlife, and the nuanced way the novel poses questions about the afterlife as well as life on earth. Definitely recommended!

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Review: The Boy Most Likely To by Huntley Fitzpatrick

Title: The Boy Most Likely To
Author: Huntley Fitzpatrick
Publisher: Dial Books
Release date: August 18th 2015
Pages: 425
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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Tim Mason was The Boy Most Likely To find the liquor cabinet blindfolded, need a liver transplant, and drive his car into a house

Alice Garrett was The Girl Most Likely To . . . well, not date her little brother’s baggage-burdened best friend, for starters.

For Tim, it wouldn’t be smart to fall for Alice. For Alice, nothing could be scarier than falling for Tim. But Tim has never been known for making the smart choice, and Alice is starting to wonder if the “smart” choice is always the right one. When these two crash into each other, they crash hard.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Like everyone else, I loved My Life Next Door and was super excited for its companion. And while The Boy Most Likely To is very different from My Life Next Door, I still very much enjoyed it. Instead of the swoony romance of My Life Next Door, we get a darker story more focused on the characters' individual issues. So if you're expecting another romance like My Life Next Door, you might be disappointed, but if you're open to The Boy Most Likely To being a darker novel more driven by character growth and serious issues, you will love The Boy Most Likely To just as much as the first book.

Tim's story was, by far, my favorite part of the book. Tim is such an intriguing character and unusual narrator in YA, and I loved getting to know him. I wish we could have gotten a little more background info on how he first got into drinking and all of that, but other than that, he is a fully-developed and complex character. His voice is compelling and distinct: his self-deprecating sense of humor shines through his parts of the novel, making even the more emotional elements funny and entertaining. His story takes a surprising twist that I can't really talk about without spoiling anything, and I really loved the whole story that develops from there on. This unexpected situation forces Tim to grow up a lot, and it provides a lot of emotional as well as funny scenes. The plot twists keep on coming in this storyline, making the novel a lot more suspenseful than I was expecting it to be.

Alice's parts weren't quite as surprising and unique as Tim's, but I enjoyed them nonetheless. Alice has been stepping in for her mother and taking care of the younger kids and everything around the house while her mother takes care of her father, which really shows the impact of what had happened in My Life Next Door. To me, Alice's story mainly seemed like a continuation of My Life Next Door, which isn't necessarily a bad thing because it lets readers return to the characters they loved and the storyline that fascinated them in My Life Next Door, but it does mean that Alice's voice isn't quite as strong as Tim's.

The romance, like I said, does not play as big a role in The Boy Most Likely To as one might expect from a companion to My Life Next Door. Tim and Alice already know each other in the beginning, but they slowly transition from their teasing semi-friendship to something more. I liked how this made it more of a slow-burn romance, with the attraction and chemistry building up while the main characters take forever to finally get together. But their relationship did bother me a little in the beginning, when it mainly consists of Tim continuously jokingly hitting on Alice, which just didn't sit right with me, and Alice finally admitting that she likes Tim too, without any deeper exploration of her feelings for him. But since the romance isn't the main focus of the book, this didn't bother me too much; I was mainly just enjoying both of their stories regardless of the romance.

I feel like The Boy Most Likely To was kind of falsely marketed as a romance; then again, I'm not sure how else you could market it considering the main storyline isn't revealed until later on. But if you're willing to accept that The Boy Most Likely To focuses on much darker issues and is very different in writing and in content from what we saw in My Life Next Door, it's a really great novel. I'm impressed by the versatility in Huntley Fitzpatrick's writing and can't wait to read what she publishes next!

Friday, January 22, 2016

Guest Post by Laura J. Burns & Melinda Metz (Sanctuary Bay Blog Tour)

Today we have Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz here for a guest post and a giveaway! This post is part of the blog tour for Sanctuary Bay.

Sanctuary Bay was released on January 19th. Here's what it's all about:


Sanctuary Bay by Laura J. Burns & Melinda Metz
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When Sarah Merson receives the opportunity of a lifetime to attend the most elite prep school in the country-Sanctuary Bay Academy-it seems almost too good to be true. But, after years of bouncing from foster home to foster home, escaping to its tranquil setting, nestled deep in Swans Island, couldn't sound more appealing. Swiftly thrown into a world of privilege and secrets, Sarah quickly realizes finding herself noticed by class charmer, Nate, as well as her roommate's dangerously attentive boyfriend, Ethan, are the least of her worries. When her roommate suddenly goes missing, she finds herself in a race against time, not only to find her, but to save herself and discover the dark truth behind Sanctuary Bay's glossy reputation.

In this genre-bending YA thriller, Sanctuary Bay by Laura J. Burns and Melinda Metz, Sarah's new school may seem like an idyllic temple of learning, but as she unearths years of terrifying history and manipulation, she discovers this "school" is something much more sinister.
I love when YA books combine elements of mysteries/thrillers with the usual contemporary YA topics such as romance, friendship, etc. Could you talk a little bit about what made you want to combine these genres and how you worked to balance them in Sanctuary Bay?
We love that, too! It’s funny; when we think of writing any YA book, even if it’s a genre like mystery or thriller, we assume that things like romance and friendship would be a part of it. How could they not? In order for our characters to feel as if they’re real people, we need them to act and think and feel like real people would. If you were busy tracking down a killer, you probably wouldn’t be obsessing about your latest crush. But you would still be you, and that means you’d think about your friends and how they could help you, or you’d think about your parents and things that they taught you. Basically, you’d still think about things that mattered to you, even though those things might be a lower priority while you were solving your case.

In Sanctuary Bay, we’ve got a boarding school with some crazy stuff going on. Our heroine, Sarah, has her hands full trying to figure it all out. But she still pays attention to her friends. She worries about their safety and fears for them when they’re in danger. Occasionally she even feels a stab of attraction to the guy she’s having these adventures with. Those things make her human. It would be strange if she didn’t feel them. But she doesn’t let them derail her quest for answers.

Or, really, WE don’t let those things derail her! This is a fast-paced book, and if we had Sarah sit down in the middle of the action to think about her confusing feelings for Ethan…well, that would ruin the pacing of the book. Readers would feel frustrated by the interruption. So the way we balanced the more typical elements of a YA book (romance, friendship, school) with the thriller aspects was to take our time setting up Sarah as a character, her life at the Sanctuary Bay Academy, her friends and potential boyfriends. We tried to draw those relationships and the world of the school as clearly as possible. And then we spent the rest of the book completely messing with all of it!
Make sure to check out the other stops of the blog tour, and keep your eye out for Sanctuary Bay, out now!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Instructions for the End of the World by Jamie Kain

Title: Instructions for the End of the World
Author: Jamie Kain
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release date: December 8th 2015
Pages: 224
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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When Nicole Reed’s father forces her family to move to a remote area of the Sierra Foothills, one without any modern conveniences, her life is completely turned upside down.
It’s not that Nicole isn’t tough. She’s learned how to hunt, and she knows how to build things—she’s been preparing for the worst-case scenario for what seems like forever.
But when she and her sister, Izzy, are left alone in this remote landscape to fend for themselves, her skills are put to the ultimate test. She’s fine for a while, but then food begins to run out, the pipes begin to crack, and forest fires start to inch closer every day.
When Wolf, a handsome boy from the neighboring community, offers to help, Nicole feels conflicted. She can take care of herself. But things have begun to get desperate, and there’s something about this boy she can’t shake.
As feelings develop between these two—feelings Nicole knows her father would never allow once he returns—she must make a decision. With her family falling apart, will she choose to continue preparing for tomorrow’s disasters, or will she take a chance and start living for today?
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Let me start by saying that if you're looking for a survivalist/apocalyptic novel, you're definitely going to be disappointed by Instructions for the End of the World. I was a little confused after reading the description and wasn't sure if there actually is an impending natural disaster or if this is just about Nicole and her family, and the latter turns out to be the case, but since I like either type of story, I didn't really mind. The story in Instructions for the End of the World is really weird, and I'm still not exactly sure what to make of it - Jamie Kain's writing is strong, and I really loved the originality of the novel, but there are some elements that are not developed enough to make this novel as impactful as it could have been.

I loved Jamie Kain's writing so much that I didn't even question the plot for maybe the first half of the novel. The writing style is so immersive that I finished the book within a day. The descriptions are very vivid and convey a great sense of setting: I felt like I was really there in the woods, the abandoned house, or the spiritualist camp. This writing really carried the novel for me, made me enjoy every part of it and not really notice until after I had finished reading that some of the other elements are lacking.

Even though elements of the characterization are flawed, all of the characters are intriguing to say the least. The story is told by Nicole, Izzy, Wolf, and Laurel, and all of them have very unconventional stories that are fascinating to read about. They're not really likeable (other than maybe Wolf), but I didn't mind because that didn't seem to be the point, and they all grow a lot over the course of the novel. Nicole is the obedient daughter who has always gone along with her father's obsession with survival, which makes for a very different main character; she might not be someone I can relate to, but she was fascinating to read about. Izzy is even more frustrating at the beginning of the novel: while of course her anger at the situation is understandable, her refusal to cooperate or help out Nicole makes her come across as a spoiled brat. But I actually really loved her storyline: the traumatic event that happens to her later on is handled with grace and made me really feel for her. I also loved how Izzy's and Nicole's developed over the course of the story. I just wish that we had gotten to know their parents more; both of them are fascinating people, and we do learn some of their secrets in their absence, but I wish that whole part of the novel had been elaborated on more. Then there's Wolf, who, albeit also living in very unconventional circumstances, is a bit easier to relate to. I really liked his story and the stories of the other people living on the reservoir. The fourth character whose POV we get to read from is Laurel, and I'm still confused about what readers were supposed to take from her story. I found the chapters from her perspective fascinating and really liked her character, but then she just kind of disappeared from the story. There are no chapters from her perspective in the second half of the novel and she just disappears to the peripheries of Wolf's story. I'm not really sure why Kain decided to do that; I wanted more development of Laurel's story because the way it is, I feel like it didn't really add anything to the novel.

The ending felt very underwhelming for me. I wasn't expecting a happy ending or anything, but I was expecting... something. The book just kind of ends with most things going back to the way they were before, with some minor changes, but that made it hard for me to see where the story was going. I especially wanted more of a resolution regarding Izzy and Nicole's parents, wanted a scene where the two of them could confront their mother, or something. The way it is, I couldn't really tell where the author wanted to take the story.

In a word, this book was different, in ways both good and bad. I really loved the writing, the unique setting, and the intriguing characters, but I wanted a lot more from some elements of the story. So if you're looking for a different type of YA novel to read, maybe give Instructions for the End of the World a try, just don't expect an entirely coherent story arc or anything like that. I do want to check out Jamie Kain's debut novel or whatever she publishes next, though, because I loved her writing style so much. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Breakaway by Kat Spears

Title: Breakaway
Author: Kat Spears
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Release date: September 15th 2015
Pages: 290
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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When Jason Marshall’s younger sister passes away, he knows he can count on his three best friends and soccer teammates—Mario, Jordie, and Chick—to be there for him. With a grief-crippled mother and a father who’s not in the picture, he needs them more than ever. But when Mario starts hanging out with a rough group of friends and Jordie finally lands the girl of his dreams, Jason is left to fend for himself while maintaining a strained relationship with troubled and quiet Chick.

Then Jason meets Raine, a girl he thinks is out of his league but who sees him for everything he wants to be, and he finds himself pulled between building a healthy and stable relationship with a girl he might be falling in love with, grieving for his sister, and trying to hold on to the friendships he has always relied on.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I didn't have my expectations set to high for this book: it sounded like a pretty generic contemporary YA story, and I hadn't heard much about it. But Breakaway took me by surprise and completely blew me away. I read the first 200 pages in one sitting, and didn't pause to realize how much I was loving the book until after I had devoured all of it. Kat Spears's writing is so immersing, honest and poignant; I loved everything about this book.

I loved Jaz as our main character. I don't even think I would like him all that much if I met him in real life, but I absolutely loved being inside his head. His voice is honest and authentic, equal parts entertaining and and poignant. Jaz is impulsive and has a bit of an anger problem; he tends to make really terrible decisions. But he's a good guy deep down, and I grew to really love him and feel for him over the course of the novel. 

It's hard to pinpoint what exactly this book is about, and don't even want to talk about any of the storylines in too much depth: what I loved most about Breakaway isn't any one storyline, it's just how it tells such a real story in such an honest, engaging way. I loved reading about Jaz's friendship with Mario, Jordie, and Chick, even as it's disintegrating; each of them has their own fascinating story, and I loved the changing dynamics between the four. Although at times I felt like the grief element of the novel was underdeveloped, I loved reading about Jaz's family, too. I could see how some readers might think that all the storylines are underdeveloped because what happens or how Jaz feels about it is never spelled out for us, but I think that's just the subtleties of Kat Spears's writing: rather than telling us anything straight up, she shows us what's going on through Jaz's actions and his refusal to think about or feel things. This is a very honest, maybe even bleak, way to tell the story, but I really loved it.

Even though I appreciated that it wasn't the main focus of the novel, I really enjoyed the romance. I loved Raine - I was scared she would be the cliched popular girl who turns out to be troubled and different, but there's a lot more to her than that. She's spunky and fun to read about, and I loved the influence she had on Jaz. Kat Spears really knows how to work the slow burn; the two of them take forever to finally get together, and it made the chemistry between them all the better. Their relationship is honest and realistic, and I loved it.

Despite Kat Spears's subtleties, she manages to address a variety of issues in her novel. I really appreciated the honest portrayal of class relations and racial identity, and how that plays into the boys' friendship as well as their feeling of belonging with certain sets of people. Depression, mental illness, and suicide are big themes in the book as well, novel also briefly mentions learning disabilities. Drug use is explored, too, although I found the portrayal of Mario's drug use as bad and Jaz's own drinking as unproblematic to be a little too simplistic. But other than that, Spears weaves these issues into Jaz's story in honest and thoughtful ways.

I can see how a lot of readers will take issue with the book's ending. The novel ends very abruptly; it just kind of... stops, and it's about as far away from a happy ending as you can get. At first, I was a little disappointed by the abrupt ending: I wanted to know what really happened to Jaz's sister, and I wanted to know what would happen after. But, the more I think about, the more I understand that this ending works better than anything else; a happy, sugar-coat-y ending that gives us all the answers wouldn't have fit the rest of the book at all. I wished the book would go on because I wasn't ready to leave these characters behind but, artistically, I think this ending makes the most sense and works well with the story.

If you're expecting resolutions and happy endings, this book probably isn't for you, but I really appreciated the almost painful rawness and honesty of Breakaway. Kat Spears's writing style and Jaz's voice are engaging and immersive, the type of writing you can read forever without noticing the time passing. I've read some other reviews complaining that the book is too sad, but I didn't find it sad in an intentional tearjerker-y way; it's just a very honest story with a somewhat bleak outlook on life. With immersive writing, lovable and complex characters, and an authentic story that will make you think, Breakaway is a story that will stay with me for a while. While it's not for everyone, I really loved the authenticity and harshness of the novel. I can't wait to get my hands on Kat Spears's debut novel, Sway, and see what she comes up with next!
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