Monday, October 27, 2014

Review: How We Fall by Kate Brauning

Title: How We Fall
Author: Kate Brauning
Publisher: Merit Press
Release date: November 3rd 2014
Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance/mystery
Source: BEA 2014
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Ever since Jackie moved to her uncle's sleepy farming town, she's been flirting way too much--and with her own cousin, Marcus.
Her friendship with him has turned into something she can't control, and he's the reason Jackie lost track of her best friend, Ellie, who left for...no one knows where. Now Ellie has been missing for months, and the police, fearing the worst, are searching for her body. Swamped with guilt and the knowledge that acting on her love for Marcus would tear their families apart, Jackie pushes her cousin away. The plan is to fall out of love, and, just as she hoped he would, Marcus falls for the new girl in town. But something isn't right about this stranger, and Jackie's suspicions about the new girl's secrets only drive the wedge deeper between Jackie and Marcus--and deepens Jackie's despair.
Then Marcus is forced to pay the price for someone else's lies as the mystery around Ellie's disappearance starts to become horribly clear. Jackie has to face terrible choices. Can she leave her first love behind, and can she go on living with the fact that she failed her best friend?
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I really liked the romance in How We Fall. I loved Tabitha Suzuma's Forbidden, a romance between brother and sister, so the whole cousins thing didn't really faze me. I absolutely loved Jackie and Marcus together; Jackie is a compelling character that I definitely related to, and Marcus is a dynamic love interest. The two of them have great chemistry, and I loved seeing them together for the first part of the novel. Honestly, though, I enjoyed the part after they had broken up even more; what happens after a break-up (or even just a break) is so rarely explored in YA that I loved seeing it here. Their issues are intriguing to read about, and I loved seeing them struggle with their emotions. 

The mystery surrounding Ellie's disappearance was the part I was most excited for, since I love contemporary YA mysteries that incorporate an emotional aspect as well. But sadly, this storyline didn't turn out to be as great as I'd hoped. Honestly, it just didn't get enough attention, since the focus remains on the romance. I don't think Jackie's feelings about Ellie's disappearance are fleshed out enough; she'll mention Ellie and talk about her for a paragraph or too, but then she'll just go back to talking about Marcus, and even during the important scenes of the mystery, Jackie and Marcus still manage to talk about their relationship rather than what's at stake. I know the romance is the main storyline, but Jackie's lack of palpable grief for Ellie bothered me. We know almost nothing about Ellie, and to justify this mystery storyline, their past would have had to be a lot more fleshed out. As for the mystery, I really liked the early parts; Kate Brauning expertly creates suspense when Jackie notices the first clues. But the resolution and the action-filled scene towards the end felt kind of lackluster to me; they're not bad, they're just predictable and not very original. It's also a bit too coincidental how the mystery ties into Jackie's and Marcus's lives. 

***This paragraph contains spoilers.***
The ending really bothered me. I know I'm weird for not liking happy endings, and I should have gotten used to books ending this way by now. I don't really know why; maybe because How We Fall addresses the problems Jackie and Marcus have once they break up so well, but I had hoped this would be different from the typical, oversimplified happy ending. I have no problem with the two of them getting together, since of course that's what the whole book is about. But considering how much time Jackie and Marcus spend discussing how people might react, I had hoped we would actually get to see some of that. Instead, we just get to see them decide to really be together, without any exploration of how that's going to work. The whole issue of them potentially breaking up and having the most awkward exes set-up of all time just kind of disappears. Will and Claire ending up together felt really forced, too, and just added to the issue of tying things up to neatly. I get that I'm in the minority here and a lot of readers will like this optimistic ending, but I just don't think it does justice to this story.

The writing is... okay. I really liked Jackie's voice, and the writing is strong for the most part. But How We Fall still very much reads like a first novel, with some clunky wordings that made me cringe. It also bothered me how much it flits back and forth between different storylines; sometimes, Jackie's thought process just doesn't seem very realistic.

With aspects I loved and parts I found underwhelming, How We Fall was an okay read for me. I did enjoy it, and I'll keep my eye out for whatever Kate Brauning writes next, but I'm not going out of my way to recommend How We Fall, either. It's an entertaining read, but it's not going on my list of favorites or anything.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy


Title: Side Effects May Vary
Author: Julie Murphy
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release date: March 18th 2014
Pages: 330
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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What if you’d been living your life as if you were dying—only to find out that you had your whole future ahead of you?
When sixteen-year-old Alice is diagnosed with leukemia, her prognosis is grim. To maximize the time she does have, she vows to spend her final months righting wrongs—however she sees fit. She convinces her friend Harvey, whom she knows has always had feelings for her, to help her with a crazy bucket list that’s as much about revenge (humiliating her ex-boyfriend and getting back at her arch nemesis) as it is about hope (doing something unexpectedly kind for a stranger and reliving some childhood memories). But just when Alice’s scores are settled, she goes into remission.
Now Alice is forced to face the consequences of all that she’s said and done, as well as her true feelings for Harvey. But has she done irreparable damage to the people around her, and to the one person who matters most?
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Side Effects May Vary is told in alternating chapters from Alice's and Harey's points-of-view, and they also alternate between then - when Alice is diagnosed and seems to be losing the battle against cancer - and now, after she's gone into remission. And the reason I had such conflicting feelings about this book is that I loved the now part of the story, but found the then pretty underwhelming, which is why I still can't make up my mind about this book.

I absolutely loved the now part of the story. Everyone has read the girl-dying-from-cancer story before, but the idea of going into remission and figuring out how to live again is unique and refreshing. Especially because Alice's bucket list when she was first diagnosed is not just your typical experiences-I-need-to-have-before-I-die type of thing but also consisted of getting back at people who had wronged her and generally not caring about the consequences of any of her actions. So even though you would assume a cancer patient would be ecstatic at hearing they're in remission, it makes sense that Alice would have a hard time dealing with the repercussions of what she did when she assumed she wouldn't be around to face the consequences.

The relationship between Alice and Harvey is the main focus of Side Effects May Vary. I know a lot of people took issue with this relationship because Alice is not exactly a good person when it comes to Harvey. But I strongly believe that a character does not have to be likable for a book to be good, and Alice is undoubtedly a well-written character. Yes, Alice's disregard for Harvey's feelings, and her inability to make up her mind about what exactly she wants from him are infuriating. But Alice's issues are realistic and really well-done; even though what she's doing is horrible, I understood her, at least to some extent. Julie Murphy's writing is beautiful and evocative when it comes to Alice's and Harvey's feelings for one another. Both Alice's and Harvey's stories are fascinating, and even if it's frustrating to read about, their relationship is well-written, complex and nuanced, and I loved it. I found the ending a bit disappointing because I wanted more of a resolution, but I still thought it fit the story well.

I get that, in a way, the then part of the story is necessary for the now part to work. But it still didn't work for me. I'm sorry, but I just couldn't get myself to care about this part of the story. It moves really slowly, and since such large parts of the beginning of the novel are about then, I found Side Effects May Vary very hard to get into. The remission part is what makes this book unique, so I wish the focus had been more or less exclusively on that, rather than dwelling on the time when Alice thought she was dying. The teenager-dying-from-cancer story has been done a million times before, and the descriptions of what Alice is going through aren't well-done enough to really stand out. Especially knowing the outcome, the story didn't evoke the feels that this kind of story usually would. The then scenes are very average; with an idea that had so much potential, I found those parts to be underwhelming, and they took away from my enjoyment of the novel.

So... yeah. Very different feelings about the two parts of this story. It took me a looong time to really get into the story because the beginning is dominated by the underwhelming flashbacks. But I did love the complex relationship portrayed in the now part of the story. So I do recommend Side Effects May Vary, if you think you can handle the slow parts.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu


Title: Life by Committee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release date: May 13th 2014 
Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
Tabitha might be the only girl in the history of the world who actually gets less popular when she gets hot. But her so-called friends say she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her flat.
Now Tab has no one to tell about the best and worst thing that has ever happened to her: Joe, who spills his most intimate secrets to her in their nightly online chats. Joe, whose touch is so electric, it makes Tab wonder if she could survive an actual kiss. Joe, who has Tabitha brimming with the restless energy of falling in love. Joe, who is someone else’s boyfriend.
Just when Tab is afraid she’ll burst from keeping the secret of Joe inside, she finds Life by Committee. The rules of LBC are simple: tell a secret, receive an assignment. Complete the assignment to keep your secret safe.
Tab likes it that the assignments push her to her limits, empowering her to live boldly and go further than she’d ever go on her own.
But in the name of truth and bravery, how far is too far to go?
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I loved Corey Ann Haydu's debut, OCD Love Story, and there has been so much buzz for this one, so I had high expectations for Life by Committee. And luckily, those expectations were met completely! Life by Committee is an absorbing and thought-provoking read, and I absolutely loved it.

Tabitha is what I loved most about Life by Committee. I could see how others might object to some of her decisions, but I for one loved her. I could definitely relate to her struggles, and her honesty is what I loved most about Tabitha. She is so open about what she's going through, and... I don't even know how to explain it; there's just something about Tabitha's voice that spoke to me in a very personal way.

The whole idea of the Life by Committee site is so intriguing. I found my feelings about the site mirroring Tabitha's: I was sucked into it just as much as she was, I felt the thrill of completing the assignments, and I wanted Tabitha to keep going and going, even when the assignments get a bit too intense. I absolutely loved the plot twist about the site's members because I totally did not see that coming. (Although there's a small detail about the twist that didn't add up, in my opinion.)

Tabitha's real-life issues are just as fascinating as the website. The romance is dumb and it was obvious to the reader throughout that Joe is an idiot, but it was necessary for this to work, and it felt realistic. The family set-up is very unique, and I loved reading about it, even if I wish there had been a bit more development of that storyline at the end. My favorite part, though, was the strong theme of friendship: the drama between Tabitha and her ex-friends brought up some interesting issues, and I loved reading about her relationship with Elisa, as well as the other friendship that is hinted at towards the end. These different storylines intertwined in masterful ways to create a story that I absolutely loved.

The ending, to be honest, was a bit cheesy. Am I the only one who kept picturing the ending of Mean Girls throughout that entire scene? It totally works in Mean Girls because it's Mean Girls, but I'm not sure it works here. Even though I appreciated the message, the scene felt a bit forced and melodramatic, and I kind of wish there had been a more subtle way to resolve all of this.

Despite the slight melodrama, I absolutely loved Life by Committee. With a strong, honest voice and a story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, Life by Committee is everything I'd hoped it would be, and more. Tabitha's character spoke to me in a very personal way, so I can't judge how well that would work for other readers, but I still definitely recommend it for the unique and intriguing story.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Title: Gracefully Grayson
Author: Ami Polonsky
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release date: November 4th 2014
Pages: 208
Genre: middle grade contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Alone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.
The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Gracefully Grayson is such an important book. Without being preachy, Gracefully Grayson sends a powerful message while still telling an engaging story. Ami Polonsky handles the topic at hand gracefully (get it?), and I absolutely loved it.

Generally, I prefer books with bigger stories about characters who just happen to be LGBT over books that focus mainly on the character's LGBT identity, because it's so important to show that not only straight, cisgender white people can have adventures and have stories that deserve to be told. But Gracefully Grayson sort of blurs the line between the two: yes, Grayson's gender expression and identity are the most important subject, but there are plenty of other storylines that tie into this theme in one way or another. And while stories about characters who happen to be gay/lesbian/bisexual/etc. should definitely be a thing by now, I (sadly) don't know if our society is ready for the same thing with a transgender character. Since a transgender identity is (again, sadly) still so controversial, it makes sense for the experience to be so overwhelming for this to be the focus of Grayson's story.

Ami Polonsky handles Grayson's experience with the utmost respect and honesty. Gracefully Grayson is not an in-depth exploration of why Grayson would like to be a girl - a preference for girls' clothes is the only indicator we really get to see - but I didn't mind because Grayson absolutely does not have to justify his feelings to anyone. The focus is more on the effects of this identity; this is simply Grayson's story. I also appreciated that sexuality is not brought into any of this, since it's important to show that gender identity and sexual orientation don't have to be related, and I'm glad the focus remained solely on Grayson's gender expression.

It's hard to separate the issue of gender expression from the rest of the novel, since it affects pretty much everything in Grayson's life, but I loved all of the other storylines as well. The cast of characters is great, showing a wide variety of reactions to Grayson's experience. I loved seeing Grayson find friends and be who he wants to be in theater, and while of course I didn't agree with them, it's interesting and realistic to see how Grayson's aunt and uncle (with whom she lives) try to deal with all of this. I especially loved the ending, which is optimistic and hopeful without being unrealistically happy.

With beautiful writing and a strong, relatable main character, Gracefully Grayson is an honest, moving, powerful story that I loved. I definitely recommend giving Grayson the chance to tell her story to you as well.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy


Title: Criminal
Author: Terra Elan McVoy
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: May 7th 2013
Pages: 288
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
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Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.
So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime – a crime that ends in murder – Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.
But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about?
Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Criminal turned out to be really different than I'd expected. I had assumed the story would start with Nikki being happy with Dee, show how he gradually pulls her into this darker stuff, and then escalate with the murder. I figured the novel would end with Nikki finally giving up Dee and going to the police. But that's not how Criminal is set up. The story starts with the murder and deals mainly with the aftermath. This set-up has its pros and cons: it made me feel Nikki's despair, and it let us see what happens later on, but it also made it a bit harder to understand why Nikki won't give Dee up, since we never get to see the two of them together before things went so wrong. 

It isn't easy to be in Nikki's head. Seeing her continue to defend Dee, to abandon herself and everyone around her to do exactly what Dee tells her, to basically wreck everything for her obsession with Dee... it gets frustrating. But Nikki's character is so well done that I sympathized with her despite her flaws. Her life leading up to this point has been rough, to say the least, and it's easy to understand why she would cling on to Dee, when so many other people have abandoned her. Being inside Nikki's head is harrowing, emotional, and sometimes painful, but I loved it. The cast of secondary characters isn't too complex or lovable (except for Bird, of course), but they do add a lot to the story.

Like I said earlier, the downfall of starting this story with the crime is that we don't get to know what Dee and Nikki were like before things went so wrong. In any story about an unhealthy relationship, I think it's important to show both the problematic parts and the good moments so that the reader can understand why the victim loves their partner so much and won't give them up. And that was missing in Criminal. Throughout the novel, I felt nothing but hatred towards Dee, what he puts Nikki through and how he treats her. I wish we had gotten some more insight into Dee as a person, to find out about his background and understand how he came to be this monster of a person. Of course it's important to show that his actions are completely unacceptable, but I still wish his character had been more complex so we could have understood him and his relationship with Nikki a bit better.

The prison setting is really well done. I can't judge how realistic it is (and don't want to!), but it definitely felt real. I loved reading about all those details that you don't really hear about, and it was great to see how Nikki's relationships with the other inmates develop.

Criminal is very different from Terra Elan McVoy's previous books. I loved her light, entertaining reads, but she does this darker story really well too. Criminal is a unique, gritty novel, and while it's a hard read, it's definitely worth it. I can't wait to read Terra Elan McVoy's newest, In Deep!
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