Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday #30: Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish with a different topic for a top-ten list each week. You can find out more about it here.

This week's topic is: Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

I only have seven for this list, but here goes...

Nina LaCour

Nina LaCour's debut, Hold Still, is one of my all-time favorites; her writing is incredible. And yet, somehow... I still haven't read The Disenchantments or Everything Leads to You. I really need to make that happen.

Justina Chen

I loved Justina Chen's writing in North of Beautiful... but still haven't gotten around to reading any of her other books.

Trish Doller

I remember being completely obsessed with Trish Doller's debut, Something Like Normal - it was one of my most anticipated releases, and it was still better than I'd expected. And Trish Doller is awesome on Twitter, too, so I really should read her sophomore novel. One day...

Libba Bray

The only Libba Bray book I've read is Beauty Queens, which I liked, but which everyone says is her worst one. So I should really read some of her other books...

Natalie Standiford

How to Say Goodbye in Robot spoke to me in a very personal way, and I still think about it to this day. (Which is a big deal, because I usually forget what happened in a book like a week after I finish it.) I really need to read some more of her books, even if they probably won't live up to how much I loved How to Say Goodbye in Robot.

Sarah Mlynowski

Ten Things We Did (And Probably Shouldn't Have) is the only Sara Mlynowski book I've read, but I absolutely loved it; it was hilarious, the perfect feel-good read. I think I need some more Sarah Mlynowski in my life...

Melissa Walker

I loved Melissa Walker's Unbreak My Heart, and I've heard great things about her other books, so I really need to get on that...

Have you read any of these authors' books? Which ones do I NEED to read?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: The Fine Art of Pretending by Rachel Harris

Title: The Fine Art of Pretending
Author: Rachel Harris
Publisher: Spencer Hill Contemporary
Release date: September 30th 2014
Pages: 256
Genre: Young Adult contemporary romance
Source: BEA 2014
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According to the guys at Fairfield Academy, there are two types of girls: the kind you hook up with, and the kind you're friends with. Seventeen-year-old Alyssa Reed is the second type. And she hates it. With just one year left to change her rank, she devises a plan to become the first type by homecoming, and she sets her sights on the perfect date—Justin Carter, Fairfield Academy’s biggest hottie and most notorious player.
With 57 days until the dance, Aly launches Operation Sex Appeal and sheds her tomboy image. The only thing left is for Justin actually to notice her. Enter best friend Brandon Taylor, the school’s second biggest hottie, and now Aly’s pretend boyfriend. With his help, elevating from “funny friend” to “tempting vixen” is only a matter of time.
But when everything goes according to plan, the inevitable “break up” leaves their friendship in shambles, and Aly and Brandon with feelings they can’t explain. And the fake couple discovers pretending can sometimes cost you the one thing you never expected to want.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

The cover of The Fine Art of Pretending is adorable, and when they're well done, this type of story can be really cute. Sadly, The Fine Art of Pretending doesn't belong in the "well done" category, in my opinion - the characters are frustrating, and the plot drags on with unnecessary drama about nothing. The Fine Art of Pretending just didn't work for me.

Aly rubbed me the wrong way from the first page on, since the novel starts with her plan to give herself a total makeover of appearance and personality, in order to get guys to like her. I know this was to be expected from the description, but I had somehow assumed she was making these changes for herself, rather than for male attention. But... no. The whole thing is about getting guys to like her. Her entire self-worth is based on male perceptions of her, which is problematic in so many ways. When she finds out that the guys at her school have organized girls into two groups - Casuals (girls to hook up with) and Commitments (girls to have relationships with) - she is only concerned with wanting to become a Casual, rather than being outraged at how offensive and objectifying this distinction is. Yes, I understand that Aly isn't supposed to be entirely likeable at the beginning of the novel, since the plot is about her character growth. But this character growth focuses on her learning she is really a Commitment and shouldn't try to be a Casual, rather than dismantling this ridiculous binary. The depiction of femininity within these two groups is highly stereotypical and demeaning to both "categories" of females. It also bothered me how the only way for Aly to become okay with being a Commitment is realizing that this is something guys do like - rather than becoming comfortable with herself regardless of male perceptions of her. The problems with the depiction of gender roles and definitions of femininity in this novel are just endless.

Brandon isn't much better. His views of gender are also highly problematic, but I think my feminist rant has gone on long enough, so I'll talk about my issues with his character, regardless of gender stuff, instead. Honestly, I just don't think his story was strong enough. The main obstacle standing in the way of Aly and Brandon being together, once they've realized they have feelings for each other, is that Brandon believes relationships always end and therefore aren't worth it, which he learned from seeing his mother grieve the death of his father. This idea has a lot of potential, but it isn't developed enough to actually make me feel for him. We never find out anything about his dad, other than that he died, or his mom, other than that she's grieving; they're very, very one-dimensional characters. We also never really get to see Brandon grieve his father, other than making those statements about how he learned that relationships only cause pain. If we had really gotten insight into how grief has affected his family, I could have sympathized with Brandon and understood his reluctance to start a relationship, but because the storyline is so underdeveloped, it seemed kind of contrived and constructed only to have Aly and Brandon face some kind of obstacle.

Most of the secondary characters are just personifications of stereotypes. I really wanted to get to know Aly's girl friends, but the only time they play a role is when Aly needs someone to discuss her guy troubles with; I don't think they ever have a conservation that doesn't revolve around one of their relationships with a guy. All the other characters are just the stereotypical popular high school kids who don't get real personalities. And what is up with all of these one-week relationships everyone is having?? The only other character we get a little bit of insight to is Justin, but his story is oversimplified, too.

I can't really think of a nicer way to put this; I just didn't like this book all that much. There are many books out there who do the friendship-turning-into-romance storyline a lot better than The Fine Art of Pretending does. This story is melodramatic, stereotypical, and highly problematic regarding perceptions of femininity. I just couldn't enjoy it in any way.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review: Afterworlds by Scott Westerfeld

Title: Afterworlds
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: September 23rd 2014
Pages: 608
Genre: Young Adult paranormal/contemporary
Source: BEA
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Darcy Patel has put college and everything else on hold to publish her teen novel, Afterworlds. Arriving in New York with no apartment or friends she wonders whether she's made the right decision until she falls in with a crowd of other seasoned and fledgling writers who take her under their wings…
Told in alternating chapters is Darcy's novel, a suspenseful thriller about Lizzie, a teen who slips into the 'Afterworld' to survive a terrorist attack. But the Afterworld is a place between the living and the dead and as Lizzie drifts between our world and that of the Afterworld, she discovers that many unsolved - and terrifying - stories need to be reconciled. And when a new threat resurfaces, Lizzie learns her special gifts may not be enough to protect those she loves and cares about most.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is kind of a hard book to review, since there's two separate stories that are still somehow intertwined. So I guess I'll just start with Darcy's story. Darcy's story is the reason I was so excited for this book - since I love everything related to books and publishing, I thought reading about it would be great. And I did love that part - I loved getting to read about Darcy trying to improve her story, the editorial comments she gets, how she tries to figure out what the ending of her books should be, etc. There is so much bookish stuff in Afterworlds - Darcy goes to BEA, she's part of the fictionalized version of the Class of 2014 debut authors, she goes on tour with a popular YA author who also makes online videos (aka a fictionalized version of John Green), and on and on and on. I especially loved the discussions of whether or not Darcy's use of Hinduism to create this paranormal world is cultural appropriation - that's something I think about a lot, and the discussion in Afterworlds is nuanced and thought-provoking. All of this bookishness made me so happy and made me feel so connected to Darcy, since this is the world I live in/want to live in, too. 

Of course, when you read about something that's so close to you and that you know so much about, you're also going to have your fair share of complaints about how realistically it's portrayed. The whole scenario of a debut author getting a $150,000 deal for her first book and the unwritten sequel is definitely rare, but it's necessary to make the story work, and I guess it works, since the characters themselves keep pointing out how lucky Darcy is. But the deal is made even more unrealistic when you consider that she simply wrote a rough draft, sent it to an agent, and had a book deal 17 days later - in my experience interning at a literary agency (and, you know, having common sense) these types of things tend to take waaaay longer. I also wasn't a huge fan of the portrayal of Darcy's agent - she lets Darcy stay in her apartment when she first comes to NYC, which in itself is... well, not necessarily unrealistic, but again, rare. Darcy describes this apartment, along with everything else her agent owns, as really fancy and expensive. She talks about how unfair it is that her agent is so rich and does the math of how, if an agent makes 15% of each client's advance and royalties, and they have about 35 clients, they'll make a ton of money. But she doesn't seem to consider that most of those clients, unlike her, probably won't get $300,000 worth of advances within the first couple of years. That whole part kind of bothered me.

Asides from the publishing-related stuff, Darcy's story is only okay. I felt kind of ambivalent towards Darcy. I felt for her, but she also frustrated me to no end, because she is incredibly naive and irresponsible, blowing through her money ridiculously fast and generally just not knowing how to be an adult. I'm also not sure how I feel about the romance - Darcy starts a relationship with a fellow author, who happens to be 23, 5 years older than Darcy. Just looking at the numbers, the age difference doesn't bother me, but considering that Imogen has been in the publishing world so much longer, their relationship is somewhat student/teacher-y, which creates for an imbalanced relationship that I wasn't sure how to feel about. Imogen by herself is a complex and intriguing character, but I didn't love her and Darcy together all that much.

Then there's Lizzie's story. I wasn't sure if Lizzie's story would be right for me, since I don't read all that much paranormal, but I loved this premise. It's very unique, and it reads like real life, seamlessly connecting the world we know with paranormal aspects. The whole concept is intriguing, original, and suspenseful, and I loved reading about it. But just like with Darcy's story, I didn't love everything about it: again, I found the romance to be just okay. It's very predictable and kind of forced - of course Lizzie would fall in love with the psychopomp (ghost guide) who saved her. He has an interesting story, but him and Lizzie don't have all that much chemistry. I was also kind of disappointed by the ending: I wanted the stakes to be higher, wanted Lizzie to have to make a bigger decision. Especially since so much of Darcy's story is about deciding how to end Lizzie's story, I found the ending she ended up going with kind of underwhelming, since nothing really happens. It makes sense, since there's supposed to be a sequel, but still.

Even though I had issues with both Darcy's and Lizzie's stories, I still really enjoyed them. Scott Westerfeld's writing is great, letting me get through the whole novel pretty quickly, despite it being a 600-page-long monster of a book. I loved reading about the world of books and publishing from Darcy's point of view, and I really enjoyed Lizzie's unique and suspenseful story, too. I definitely recommend Afterworlds, for fans of both contemporary and paranormal.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Review: Since You've Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Title: Since You've Been Gone
Author: Morgan Matson
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: May 6th 2014
Pages: 449
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
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The Pre-Sloane Emily didn't go to parties, she barely talked to guys, she didn't do anything crazy. Enter Sloane, social tornado and the best kind of best friend—the one who yanks you out of your shell.But right before what should have been an epic summer, Sloane just... disappears. No note. No calls. No texts. No Sloane. There’s just a random to-do list. On it, thirteen Sloane-selected-definitely-bizarre-tasks that Emily would never try... unless they could lead back to her best friend. Apple Picking at Night? Ok, easy enough.Dance until Dawn? Sure. Why not? Kiss a Stranger? Wait... what?
Getting through Sloane’s list would mean a lot of firsts. But Emily has this whole unexpected summer ahead of her, and the help of Frank Porter (totally unexpected) to check things off. Who knows what she’ll find?
Go Skinny Dipping? Um...
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

It's no secret I love Morgan Matson - both Amy  & Roger's Epic Detour and Second Chance Summer are on my list of all-time favorites. Since You've Been Gone is a bit different from Morgan's first two books: those two were about grief, and what I loved most was the honest, heart-wrenching but hopeful emotion. Since You've Been Gone is not sad and emotional in the same way, but it definitely made me feel something - this book just made me so, so happy. You know that amazing feeling you get when you read a really good book that speaks to you in all the right ways, a feeling we sadly still don't have a word for? Since You've Been Gone is pure that-nameless-feeling.

The whole idea of the list was so much fun! Honestly, the stuff on this list is kind of dumb - I wouldn't have had a problem doing any of these, really, and if you're looking for real teenage rebellion... Yeah, no, not the case here. But Emily's character makes it work. Because the character development is so well done and Emily felt like a real person to me, I could totally understand why these things were a big deal for her. I loved reading about Emily stepping out of her comfort zone to complete this random list.

I always appreciate when book focus on friendship rather than romance, and I love how friendship drives the story in Since You've Been Gone. Sloane and Emily's friendship is portrayed in all its honest complexity: Morgan Matson doesn't resort to the cliched manipulative friendship that Sloane and Emily's characters could have easily fit, but she also doesn't gloss over their issues. She has created a perfect balance of valuing what it means to have a best friend and also exploring the problems of relying on another person so completely by showing how Emily struggles to figure out who she is without Sloane. I loved this honest portrayal of such a complex, realistic friendship.

But Sloane and Emily are not the only great friendship in this novel. As she steps out of her shell, Emily befriends Frank, Collins, and Dawn, all of whom I loved. They each have their own story that I loved reading about, and they complement Emily perfectly.

Because I loved this focus on friendship, I kept hoping there wouldn't be a romance storyline. But when there did end up being romance, I absolutely did not mind because it fits the story so naturally. Frank is not your typical YA love interest - he's nerdy and imperfect - and I loved him. Frank and Emily are adorable together, and I love how naturally and honestly this relationship develops. But even though I didn't mind that Since You've Been Gone has a romance storyline, it did bother me a bit how much the ending focuses on the romance - instead of just Emily and Frank, I wanted to read about Sloane, and I wanted to know what happens between Emily and Collins and Dawn. 

Morgan Matson's writing is so endearing that I don't think I could not love anything she writes. With engaging writing, complex characters, and a fun set-up, Since You've Been Gone is the kind of book that shows me why I love reading. If you haven't read anything by Morgan Matson, you really, really need to. I can't wait to see what she comes up with next!

Monday, September 08, 2014

Review: Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Title: Rooms
Author: Lauren Oliver
Publisher: Ecco
Release date: September 23rd 2014
Pages: 320
Genre: adult paranormal
Source: BEA 2014
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Wealthy Richard Walker has just died, leaving behind his country house full of rooms packed with the detritus of a lifetime. His estranged family—bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna—have arrived for their inheritance.
But the Walkers are not alone. Prim Alice and the cynical Sandra, long dead former residents bound to the house, linger within its claustrophobic walls. Jostling for space, memory, and supremacy, they observe the family, trading barbs and reminiscences about their past lives. Though their voices cannot be heard, Alice and Sandra speak through the house itself—in the hiss of the radiator, a creak in the stairs, the dimming of a light bulb.
The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths that will soon surface with explosive force. When a new ghost appears, and Trenton begins to communicate with her, the spirit and human worlds collide—with cataclysmic results.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I really don't know what to make of Rooms. I feel bad criticizing the novel in any way because it might just not be for me; adult paranormal is pretty much as far away from my comfort zone (aka contemporary YA) that you can get, and I only read it because it has Lauren Oliver's name on it, to be honest. I really liked the premise and concept behind Rooms, and the story is definitely intriguing. But for some reason, I never really connected with it; I could appreciate that it's well-written and expertly plotted, but there wasn't anything I could absolutely love about it.

I enjoyed Minna's, Caroline's, and Trenton's parts of the narratives. They're not exactly sympathetic characters, but they're definitely intriguing. They each have a very distinct voice that painted clear pictures of each character. All three of them have issues and are some seriously messed-up characters, but they work. They're very well-written, and yet, I couldn't love them quite as much as I wanted to. I'm not one to complain about unlikable characters or pretend I only want to read about the kinds of people I would want to be friends with, because that would be boring. But even though it's not necessary for me to like the characters, it is necessary to make me somehow emotionally invested in them, and that wasn't really the case: I found it hard to get myself to really care about their stories or what happens to them. Like I said, rationally I could appreciate how well-crafted they are, but on a more personal level, I couldn't love them or root for them the way I wanted to.

I'm not sure what to make of Alice and Sandra's stories. Honestly, the problem is that I couldn't tell them apart - and I don't know if that's the book's fault for not being clear enough or my fault for not being attentive enough in my reading. Alice and Sandra have very different personalities now, so whenever they are talking to each other (i.e. bickering), they are very easy to tell apart. But when they were telling us about their lives and how they ended up here, I found it really hard to keep their stories straight, for some reason. This might just be because I wasn't paying enough attention, but either way it made it really hard to get to know or fully understand either character.

I think Rooms could also be categorized as mystery, because you don't find out what is really going on until the very end. There is a ton of plot twists that explain how the various stories tie in together. These revelations are (at least in part) surprising and intriguing, but it bothered me that so many of them take place at the very end of the novel. While of course it makes sense to not want to reveal anything earlier than that, this meant that the implications of these plot twists are not explored in an emotionally satisfying way, which significantly decreased their impact, for me.

Lauren Oliver's writing is exquisite, as always, so on a purely aesthetic level, I did enjoy Rooms. But I wasn't personally invested in the story in any way, and the plot twists aren't explored enough to get me to love the story. I do recommend Rooms for the intriguing premise and the beautiful writing style, but I won't be calling it a personal favorite. 
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