Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: Faking Normal by Courtney C. Stevens


First thing's first: I cannot believe this is a debut novel. Faking Normal is written with the precision, lyricism and flow of many other authors' seventh or eighth novels. Some authors never get there. Courtney Stevens is some kind of prodigy or something.
Honestly, I have very few negative things to say about this book. I'm going to start with them, because I don't want to leave you with any kind of negative impression by putting them later in my review. They will be out of the way, and then I can go on telling you how great everything else about it is.
I almost feel guilty that this bothered me even a little, but I couldn't get on board with all of the religious references. Not that it's overbearing or preachy-- far from it-- but it's also not one of those books that raises questions or doubts. Alexi's and Bodee's families are solidly Christian, and Alexi turns to God pretty consistently throughout the novel. But atheists, don't fear: this isn't the kind of book that will make you nauseous (*just don't read the acknowledgments, because they will). Other than the characters' church-outings and occasional references to God, it's all pretty secular. These aren't evangelical Christians and there is no political or social commentary from that perspective-- any commentary you'll find is about the situations, not the beliefs.
I didn't quite buy the friendship between Alexi and her two best friends, Heather and Liz. Liz seemed like a great friend, if the typical good-girl, committed-to-God type, and Heather always thought she had Alexi's best interests at heart, but often their dialogue was strained and repetitive. There was one section in particular where I wished these three characters would open their eyes and stop talking about the same things all the time. Heather and Liz both indicated they knew there was something wrong with Alexi, but they never paid enough attention to actually help her through it. They somehow missed the scratch marks on her neck and how uncomfortable she never failed to be around the football boys; they let her go off by herself when she was obviously upset, all too easily believing her lies about why she was upset; Heather incessantly tried to set her up with a boy in whom Alexi clearly had no interest, and then shuts her out completely when something happens that's not even remotely Alexi's fault. Both friends just grated on me after a while.

But that's it. Those are literally the only negative things I have to say about Faking Normal.
As a book that tackles several heavy topics-- rape, PTSD, domestic violence, even emotional abuse-- it had potential to be very dark and unforgiving. But what I loved is that it's shot through with light: Bodee and Alexi have the kind of friendship that makes the stars in the sky seem a little brighter, the darkness a little less infinite. 
"He doesn't shush me or say I'm okay. He knows I'm not. There's none of the pacifying I feared. Bodee is all arms and heartbeat. All unflustered feelings and fail-safe strength. A kiss breezes the top of my head, but he's so gentle. As if no part of him would steal my security. Ever."
"The path is sloppy, and mud kicks up as we run slapdash toward the creek. Wet leaves stick to my shoes, and I slide. Bodee keeps us upright; not that his traction is better than mine, but because it's what he does. He planks the creek with the board, and tests his weight and balance against the slickness of the wood. Always checking, always careful. And protective. If I'd befriended Bodee years ago, maybe I would have found my voice.
We only get the story from Alexi's perspective, but it's clear that she means as much to Bodee as he does to her. He is going through a personal tragedy too, and it's Alexi who helps him find his voice. Theirs isn't a romance as much as it is a friendship, one of those perfect friendships that arise out of mutual need and understanding and willingness to make it work. There's none of that this-is-a-good-thing-so-I'm-going-to-screw-it-up-because-I'm-screwed-up crap going on, which is refreshing because it seems like a common belief that people who are broken can't allow themselves to have good things in life, for fear of breaking those too. Alexi and Bodee both realize that what they have is a good thing, and they never make those decisions that frustrate you as the reader because they're obviously only intended to create tension. They do what is right for each other, always-- and that means being there.
As for the subject matter, I thought it was all handled brilliantly. I'm not an expert by any means, but it seems as if some thorough research (or, hopefully not, experience) went into creating this story about a girl who suffered something awful and violent (you can probably guess, but since the jacket copy doesn't say exactly what happened, I won't either) at the hands of someone who was supposed to be her friend, and a boy who witnessed the worst possible thing happening to his favorite person in the world, at the hands of someone who should have loved them both. Alexi's guilt (as well as Bodee's) after what happened to her seems all too realistic, and her coping mechanisms natural answers to the pain she still feels. 
On a more surface level, the book demands to be read. I started it at 8:30 at night, fully anticipating that I would drag it out over the next couple days, but it had other ideas. I finished at 2:30am. The mystery throws you back and forth between two suspects, and several times I thought I had it figured out until a sentence or two would change my mind and I would try to decide who I was supposed to think was the culprit (because obviously whoever you're supposed to think it is, it is never that person). Finding out who it really was wasn't some mind-blowing revelation for me, but the book was never about the mystery anyway. It's about surviving after tragedy, finding your voice and moving on when all you want to do is hide under your bed or in the closet and count the slats in the ceiling vent.
Basically, I can't recommend this book enough. I think it's not only a good book with fantastic characters and a healthy central relationship, but an important story about quiet survival.
Read it. Look, I even gave you a link.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Review: Maybe One Day by Melissa Kantor

I can't decide if I like this cover or the original better?
This one depicts the girls pretty accurately but there's no beach in the book...

Before you read this book, disregard everything you think you know about cancer diagnosis and treatment. I'm not saying the book is one hundred percent inaccurate, but I've seen a lot of reviews complaining about how "unrealistic" it is, and I think it's best to go in with an open mind. The book isn't about the cancer, the diagnosis or the treatment-- it's about two childhood best friends going through it together. Because even though only one of them has cancer, they are both going through it. And that's kind of the point.
The Author's Note clearly states that in any instances where she had to choose between medical accuracy and the story itself, she chose the story. As the author, that's kind of her job, and as readers, I think it's kind of our job to respect that.

Olivia and Zoe have been best friends since they were tiny children (I don't remember how old, exactly). They have always done everything together, including going to and getting dropped from a prestigious dance school. They know each other's wardrobes, practically live at each other's houses, and consider each other members of their family. Every important thing that's ever happened to them has happened not to Olivia or to Zoe, but to Olivia and Zoe.
Including Olivia's cancer.
Narrated by Zoe, Maybe One Day is partly a reflection on a lifelong friendship, and partly a struggle with reality: that the "forever" in "best friends forever" isn't always as long as it should be.
Let me make one thing clear on the "reality" front for a second. This book isn't action-packed, there isn't anything overtly exciting about it, and there isn't a sweep-you-off-your-feet-never-leave-the-ground-again romance. It's about living your day-to-day life when you're a teenager whose best friend has cancer, and you're still trying to figure out what extracurricular activity you want to do. If you've ever watched Friday Night Lights, you know that sometimes "real" doesn't mean "boring." Humanity at its most regular and normal can be some of the most interesting stories you'll ever find, and that is what's great about this book. I was completely absorbed in Zoe and Olivia's friendship, and I was only occasionally bothered by the lack of attention given to the romance (which only bothered me not because it made the romance less important, but because the times when Zoe's relationship with Calvin was the main focus, it seemed like insta-love. Like there was no real connection between them other than a crush under development). The story of these two girls and their lives together I think will hit home with a lot of people-- it will strike a chord because this is the kind of friendship some people have always been jealous of, or because they will find themselves in it. It was a little bit of both for me. 

And I really loved Zoe's relationships with everyone, not just Olivia. She's like a sister to Olivia's brother, Jake, and very much not like a daughter to Olivia's parents. I thought that relationship with her best friend's parents was important, because it was realistic; I've experienced it myself. That nagging feeling that your friend's parents don't like you, that maybe even they wish it were you who had cancer instead of their daughter. Why wouldn't they? But how is Zoe supposed to deal with that? Being treated like an outsider when you've felt like a part of the family for so long is going to have unforseen emotional consequences; Zoe is bitter a lot of the time, and she lashes out at her own parents. But their friendship dictates that it doesn't matter, and she's always there for Olivia. In the end, the fact that Olivia's parents didn't think of her as their adoptive daughter was not important, because Olivia was. 
Her relationship with Calvin was not the main focus of the story, but I think it helped move it along. It helped Zoe deal with a lot of things, provided a bit of well-needed tension, and wasn't entirely boring. Calvin is vaguely swoon-worthy and a truly good person, so I can't really complain here.

Especially since this book isn't pitched as a romance, nor should it be. It's about friendship.

So yes, Maybe One Day is a tearjerker, and you can probably guess why. But it will also make you nostalgic, and angry, and happy, and hopeful. To reduce it to how many buckets of tears you shed while reading it would be a tremendous disservice.

Review: Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas


I'm starting this review at 12:27am. This is a bad idea for several reasons:

  1. I'm at my most emotional when a) I've just finished a book, or b) it's past midnight. So, double whammy.
  2. A book like this, my review is going to be long and rambly and I probably won't finish it until at least 2:00 if I do the whole thing now.
  3. I was totally ready to start another book, and if I keep dwelling on this one I'm going to have such a bad book hangover that I won't be able to do it. I just won't.
Crap, guys.
I wasn't prepared for this book. It beckoned me to float into the sky and then it beat me down, and beat me down, and beat me down some more.
Right, this is supposed to be the part where I tell you how much you'll enjoy Crown of Midnight. Lucky for you, "beat me down" in my vocabulary tends to mean "got me emotionally invested to the point where I cry when the characters are sad, I cry when they're happy, I cry when their full names are used in butt-kicking, odds-defying moments, and I cry when their expectations of each other are just a little too high." Because that's what happens when you love someone: you expect too much of them. You get hurt, and you hurt them right back.

Let's talk about Celaena Sardothien, the King's Champion, for a second.
Celaena, whose family was slaughtered, whose best friend and first love was murdered, who spent a year in a salt mine prison and then whose one chance for freedom involved a tournament to the death. This girl isn't just followed by death, she is death. Psychologically damaged to the point where you're on edge constantly, waiting for her to break, Celaena is not your average Strong Female Character. And I'm not talking about the padded-room-with-a-straitjacket kind of break, or the eat-your-sorrows-and-cry-in-your-bed kind of break. I'm talking about the kill-now-think-later kind of break. There are a lot of kickass female protagonists that could make you regret being born, but Celaena wouldn't even give you long enough to do so. She's an assassin, and you do not want to cross her.
It's not easy to forget how deadly Celaena is, and yet a few people have managed to see past it. Chaol, Dorian and Nehemia haven't forgotten what she is, but they're more concerned with who she is. Her relationships with each of them are extremely different, but they all ring true-- and that is why I loved this book. Through all the court drama, politics, fighting and magic, it shines with authentic humanity, with connections that sometimes break and can't grow back the way they were before, but they do grow back.
I spent a lot of time in this book arguing with myself. Part of me was mad at Celaena for the way she acted, how quickly she could turn on the people who cared about her, but then the another part of me was constantly reminding myself that she had a history of being betrayed-- and that she's suffered horrible trauma at the command of the king she now serves. And she's a teenage girl. All things considered, I think she's allowed to be irrational, spiteful and reckless. Not even halfway through the series, we have reason to believe that she's not irreparably damaging herself by being this way. Even within this very book she realizes her mistake and admits it. In the next one, maybe she won't be so impulsive or see things in such black and white terms.
Now, moving away from Celaena to talk about the book in general, I thought it was just brilliant. The transition from romance to friendship with Dorian was extremely well done and I didn't find myself doubting for a second that they could be friends. Dorian Havilliard, the Crown Prince of Adarlan, could pretty much have any girl he wanted. He wants the King's Champion, but she is the one person it seems doesn't want him back-- and what does he do? He handles it with such grace and dignity that I grew to love him even more than I already did (and I swear to god, Sarah J. Maas, I'm keeping him locked away in my room until you promise not to hurt him. I have a lot of books he can read). Dorian Havilliard is who Adam Kent should have been, but was never a decent enough human to be.
Celaena's relationship with Chaol-- Chaol Westfall, Captain of the Guard, loyal servant to the king he suspects Celaena wants to see dead-- comes naturally. The stakes are high and you could cut the tension with a knife, but one thing is always abundantly clear: Celaena and Chaol will always choose each other. They are natural enemies who learn to live in the space between right and wrong. Emotional punches left, right, up and down; don't ever get used to things going well. This book doesn't want you to be able to stand. 
You might notice that I'm talking more about the characters and relationships than anything else about the book, which may seem like a normal thing for me as those are what I usually care about the most. Honestly, though, I'm not talking about the other stuff because I slogged through it. The action scenes were compelling enough, but the magic/dungeon/exploring the castle scenes, not so much. They felt redundant and were often too long to keep me interested. I still don't find the magic the most interesting part of the series. Luckily, it's worth reading for everything else.
The writing in Crown of Midnight is leaps above what it was in Throne of Glass. Any chapter- or section-ending sentence that started with "Celaena Sardothien" or "The King's Champion" or "The Captain of the Guard" was like an emotional bomb being dropped on the page. And that final sentence? Like I said: Crap. The whole final page? Holy. Crap.

I need Heir of Fire (the revelation that explains that title? Oh yes. Yes yes yes.) right now. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review: Ignite Me by Tahereh Mafi


Seriously, if you haven't given this series a chance yet, you really, really ought to do so. Ignore the Goodreads reviewers' complaints about prose. I get where they're coming from, and I can tell you right now those people are only hurting themselves by not giving Tahereh Mafi the benefit of the doubt. Because character development. The prose in the first book is meant to reflect who Juliette was at that point, and she is not that girl anymore.

This review is going to contain spoilers for Shatter Me and Unravel me, so if you have not read those yet, please read them now. I'll wait.

Okay, ready?
So. Ignite Me picks up after Juliette has broken both Adam's and Warner's hearts and been shot by their father. She finds out that Omega Point has been destroyed and everyone in it is dead. Well, almost everyone. We're supposed to assume that there's a very small chance Adam and Kenji and the rest made it out alive, but we all know better, right? Adam's out there, still crying like a baby because Juliette broke up with him or because he thinks she's dead (dude is never satisfied, amirite) and Kenji's out there with him, telling him how annoying all his drama is.
And Juliette is with Warner. Who saved her life, even though she broke his heart.
Man, this book was everything I wanted it to be. Of all the trilogies that have ended in the past year, this one had the most satisfying ending. Honestly, it's the first series-ender since Reached that didn't give me that feeling where my stomach drops and my blood runs cold because I've just realized it's not going to end how I wanted it to end. I mean, it had about the same effect as Requiem-- which I know most people hated (they're all a bunch of know-nothing Jon Snows if you ask me)-- everything just built up and built up to a place that made sense, that didn't try to make the reader feel like an idiot for wanting a happy ending. Sure, it's not a happy ending for everyone, but all in all it's much happier than it could have been.
Because of Juliette Ferrars.
She thinks in mostly normal sentences. She doesn't cross out her thoughts. She stands up for herself, and for everyone else. She's done wallowing in self-pity and she's done letting her power control her. She's learning to control it, in more ways than one.
I'm trying not to give away too much since the book just came out yesterday, so I'll just say this: she realizes that one relationship is wrong for her. And she finds herself with two right ones (not necessarily romantic).
And stuff.

This book is perfectly paced, has consistent humor balanced well with all the angst, and anyone who complained of insta-love in the first book is going to be ridiculously pleased with this one. There's not a dull moment in the entire book, but really the thing most worth talking about is the character development. And not just Juliette's. Adam's, Warner's, Kenji's (keep in mind that not all character development is good development). I want to write amusing songs about their relationships with each other. Also, move over Adji (Kendam?), there's a new brotp in town. More of a reluctant, nervous-laughter brotp, but it makes me so, so happy.
In fact, here's a spoiler-lite list of things about this book that make me happy:
  • Kenji (◕‿◕✿)
  • No crossouts ʘ‿ʘ 
  • Warner being serious (◡‿◡✿)
  • Warner joking (✿◠‿◠)
  • Nobody understanding Warner's sense of humor (╹◡╹)
  • Juliette being a badass (◕‿-)
  • A certain "unidentified roadkill" comment (◑‿◐)
  • Chapter 55 (✿ ♥‿♥)
  • James 。◕ ‿ ◕。
  • Juliette telling Warner what to do (~ ̄▽ ̄)~
  • "Two hundred and sixty-four days I was in there and the whole time, I had the power to break myself out and I didn't, because I had no idea I would. Because I never even tried. Because I let the world teach me to hate myself. I was a coward, who needed someone else to tell me I was worth something before I took any steps to save myself." ᕙ(⇀‸↼‶)ᕗ
Let's recall that I gave Shatter Me 2 stars.
And then I gave Unravel Me 4 stars.
Well, she's finally done it.
I'm giving Ignite Me 5 stars, and I feel good about it.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Double Review: Ava Lavender & Geography

I haven't written an actual review in a while, so I figured it was time. I'll make this a two-review post, though, because I have two books I want to review and not a whole lot to say about either of them. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because one is getting a good review and one is getting a mediocre review.

First up: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton
Source: Galley from Candlewick
Plot overview from Goodreads:
Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration. That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo. First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.
My coworker put this book in my mailbox in, like, October, and I didn't touch it until last week. I don't know why. I mean, magical realism! That's my thing! I knew it was going to be good-- she's got good taste, this coworker of mine, but her taste is so very different from mine that she hardly ever makes recommendations for me. So if she thinks we'll *both* like a book? Well.
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is a novelty of narration, if you ask me. It's told by Ava Lavender in a strange and beautiful omniscient first person. Omniscient first person? But how? And before you ask, no, she's not psychic. You see, Ava tells this story as kind of a research paper on her family. She starts all the way back with her great-grandparents, and through her we get to know every member of her family from that generation until her own. Her reflective voice doesn't lend itself much to dialogue, and the chapters are rather long, but there's a magic woven into this book that makes it fly by. The style is thought-provoking and leaves little nuggets of foreshadowing and parallelism that will thoroughly please both YA and adult readers (there's an argument to be made that this book shouldn't be marketed as YA but, rather, as an adult book, but I take offense to that idea. Young adult readers are perfectly capable of appreciating a book like this, and adult readers will just have to get rid of their prejudices against YA literature and read it without being catered to. If they don't, it's their loss.)
I can't say enough about the characters, either. None of them are characterized in that exaggerated-yet-subtle way that I love so much, but the focus here is more on their stories than their personalities-- and rightfully so. Emilienne Roux/Lavender has evaded love since it destroyed her family. Viviane Lavender has spent her life waiting for her first love to come back to her. And Ava Lavender? She's been hiding from a world that could never let her be what she wants to be: normal.
Because she was born with wings, and everyone will be afraid.
Because everyone else was born without wings, and she's afraid.
If you were looking for a book about one protagonist, look somewhere else. This is a book about a whole family, the way their hearts bind them and set them free, the way a family is a family no matter what it looks like. It's about people who are broken, keeping themselves together. It's about the strange and beautiful nature of love in all its forms-- foolish, catastrophic, innocent, destructive, familial, pure, obsessive, misguided, restorative love.
And finally, the prose. I would say it might be the best thing about this book, but I truly can't decide. I'll just say the prose is lyrical, like a mix between Lauren Oliver's style in Delirium and Markus Zusak's in The Book Thief. At the same time, it's something all its own. Here, have some quotes if you don't believe me:
"She spent her days trying to forget the sound of his voice, and her nights trying to remember."
Don't you feel like you just got slapped in the face?
"And that might just be the root of the problem: we're all afraid of each other, wings or no wings."
If you don't want to read this book by now, I can't help you. But I can leave you one more quote:
"Fate. As a child, that word was often my only companion. It whispered to me from dark corners during lonely nights. It was the song of the birds in spring and the call of the wind through bare branches on a cold winter afternoon. Fate. Both my anguish and my solace. My escort and my cage."

Next up: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith
Source: e-galley from Hachette
Plot overview from Goodreads:
Lucy and Owen meet somewhere between the tenth and eleventh floors of a New York City apartment building, on an elevator rendered useless by a citywide blackout. After they're rescued, they spend a single night together, wandering the darkened streets and marveling at the rare appearance of stars above Manhattan. But once the power is restored, so is reality. Lucy soon moves to Edinburgh with her parents, while Owen heads out west with his father.
Lucy and Owen's relationship plays out across the globe as they stay in touch through postcards, occasional e-mails, and -- finally -- a reunion in the city where they first met.
A carefully charted map of a long-distance relationship, Jennifer E. Smith's new novel shows that the center of the world isn't necessarily a place. It can be a person, too.
Okay, I'll try to keep this short since the first review was longer than I expected. To be quite honest, I was disappointed with this book. Usually I fly through Smith's books in a few hours and feel totally satisfied with the experience, but this time something was missing.
I think it's my sister's fault.
When she read The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight and This is What Happy Looks Like, my sister pointed out how much these books would benefit from being told in first person rather than third. I was taken aback, because I've always loved that they were written in third. But why?
I think I only liked it because it was different. Most contemporary romances like this are written in first, and therefore these ones are automatically set apart. But I've come to realize that there's a reason those ones are written in first-person: we need to feel attached to at least one of the characters.
Don't get me wrong, I cared enough about Lucy and Owen to keep reading, but something stopped me from fully buying into their story. I was keenly aware of the third person this time around, and felt like it distanced me from them-- especially when weeks or months took place between chapters and they had to update me on their lives. As the reader, I don't think I should feel like I need to be updated on the main characters' lives. In one chapter, Lucy's meeting a new guy, and in the next chapter she's been dating him long enough to casually attend his rugby games as the supportive girlfriend. When did that happen?
Something about all the traveling in this book made me uncomfortable, too. Both of the characters were extremely attached to their homes before their lives were uprooted, and I didn't feel enough of the homesickness. Owen's father allowing him to move from school to school in his senior year as they traveled by car across the country was not only irresponsible but seemed inauthentic to his character: I simply don't believe that he would have done it. I don't believe that Owen would instantaneously feel detached from his childhood home when his mother died, or that he would refuse to love New York and then open his heart to every single other city they moved to. I don't believe that Lucy felt anything for the cities she visited or lived in with her parents, because I was only given tourist reasons to enjoy those cities. When Lucy was talking about New York, she could go off about her memories and the idiosyncrasies of the elevator for an entire paragraph, and that's what made it home. There was nothing like that for Edinburgh or London, both of which she seemed to accept as her home way too quickly.
My last gripe is that a lot of what I loved about Smith's previous books was that the main characters spent so much time together and getting to know each other-- even if it was just a plane ride, Hadley and Oliver had a chemistry that I couldn't put my finger on-- and Lucy and Owen did not. They had one night, and then postcards. Postcards, where you can write maybe five lines at a time (and they never took up all five lines). If they had ever used the word "love" with each other, I would have said it reeked of, dare I say it, insta-love.
All of this said, I'm giving the book 2.5 stars because, well, it had its moments. I liked the references (Bartleby!) and the characters weren't bad, nor was the plot per sé. I just felt like it focused too much on the characters' histories and issues and not enough on who they are, and why they're right for each other. 
I could round up and give this 3 stars, but I'd prefer not to.