Review - Once and For All
In her latest novel, reigning YA Queen, Sarah Dessen follows up masterpieces like The Truth About Forever and This Lullaby with impeccable prose and the kind of story that lifts your heart and your spirits while still managing to shift the way you think about your own life.
Eighteen-year-old Louna Barrett has known the best parts of love and the worst parts of loss in her short life. Once and For All follows Louna’s growth during her last summer home before college working at her mother’s wedding planning businesses and learning that love is not a once in a lifetime kind of thing. Especially when it comes to Ambrose, the blond haired playboy, with whom she enters into a dating-bet: if he can spend more time in a monogamous relationship than Louna can as a serial dater then he gets to choose her next conquest.
For Louna the bet is all about learning how to breathe again after the loss of her first love, Ethan. Dessen manages to slide in and out of the story of Louna-and-Ethan with effortless ease. Their love story is broken up over the course of Once and For All’s three hundred fifty seven pages with Dessen teasing out the light-hearted meshing of two lives and then bringing down the hammer of the school shooting that fractures Louna’s heart and steals Ethan away from her.
For a topic that is so heavy, especially in today’s gun-violence charged world, Dessen manages to keep Once and For All rather buoyant with her funny caricatures of characters and the playful banter she’s known for. The character of Leo had me literally laughing out loud – his description of his favorite book, Harvest, was so quintessentially my writing-major college experience that I almost did a spit take.
There were a few places where I felt like Once and For All showed a tartness opposite to the ripeness of Dessen’s other books. I felt as though it took almost too long for the relationship Louna and Ambrose were building to come to fruition. It took me three read-throughs of the dénouement at the end to understand what had actually happened. And there were a few places where I felt like the story of Louna-and-Ethan was crawling along without actually heading anywhere. But these inconsistencies were balanced out with a clear and relatable voice and with sections of prose and plot that knocked the wind out of me. It also didn’t hurt that we got a glimpse of Auden and Eli from Along for the Ride.
While I didn’t flip for Ambrose like I did for The Truth About Forever’s Wes, the love story Dessen has woven changed the way I looked at her writing. This was not just a novel about falling in love but rather a novel about learning how to be with someone else when you’re so used to being alone.
Once and For All is in perfect contrast with the darkness of Dessen’s last book, Saint Anything. And I think, we, as her readers needed that. We needed something to balance the heaviness of a book filled with delinquency and heart-breaking family illnesses. Stepping into the world of wedding planning and the head of Louna, a girl who lost love but in the end managed to believe in that perfect “once and for all” again, felt like the perfect beginning to a wonderful summer.
Everyone should read this book!
6.5 out of 7 lightning scars.
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Review - Silence is Goldfish
From Annabel Pitcher, author of My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece and Ketchup Clouds comes Silence is Goldfish the story of a fifteen-year-old girl called Tess who has decided that she is never going to speak again.
Tess discovers that her whole life has, in fact, been a lie. Her father is not her father, rather her parents used a sperm bank, and all of a sudden Tess’s world has gone belly-up like a dead fish. Tess is determined to figure out 1. Who her real father is and 2. Why her parents created this entire conspiracy around her life.
In Silence is Goldfish Pitcher masters the ebb and flow of dialogue with a voiceless narrator. The only time we, as readers, hear Tess speak is when she converses with the plastic Goldfish flashlight she bought when she was considering running away. Mr. Goldfish speaks back to her and together the two try to cobble together the basis for Tess’s life.
What I love about Pitcher’s writing is that even though there is a love interest that isn't what the book is about. It’s about family and the mistakes we make when we think no one is looking. It’s about jumping to conclusions and being afraid to be honest with ourselves. It’s about friendship and the tenuous line between too much and not enough shared information.
Pitcher manages to capture childlike wonder and incredible intelligence all within the voice of a teenager. She writes, “I plunge into the sky with Mr Goldfish, swimming about in a fish tank of our own creation that blocks out the world and all of its words. Mr Goldfish opens and closes his noiseless lips as I open and close my noiseless lips, and the sun is the ray of light shining from both our mouths because it’s true what they say, silence really is golden.”
What Pitcher manages to do is take something that doesn’t seem serious on the surface and plunge deep into the psyche of a child to whom this news is groundbreaking, earth-shattering, and life-shaking. Pitcher creates a world in which every man she comes across could be Tess’s father and in which the only person Tess feels she can trust is an inanimate object named Mr. Goldfish.
Silence is Goldfish is at times serious to the point of tears and at others belly-achingly funny. Pitcher has a comedic voice wrapped inside of to-die-for prose. By the end of the book you, as the reader, will feel a sense of accomplishment and loss as Tess tries to revive Mr. Goldfish with a battery transplant. You will be shocked at how much you feel for a flashlight.
At times the novel feels heavy handed, though. Tess is so adamant about finding out who her father is that she pays no mind to the fact that she is butting in on the lives of others in the process. While I felt for Tess as the victim of bullying and teasing I was also frustrated with her callous attitude toward the people who’d raised her, the friend who had been by her side, and the life she had been living. She allows the news that her father is not her biological father to completely disrupt her life and I found myself grinding my teeth as she barreled into the lives of men who she thought might be her long lost sperm donor.
While this is not my favorite Annabel Pitcher book (go read My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece and I promise you’ll be in tears and stitches within hours) it was still a fantastic and deeply moving read. Pitcher manages to create a character and a world that is at once all of us and none of us. The book is a fast read but it also forces you to stop, to think, and to recognize what you, yourself, have taken for granted in this life you are fortunate enough to lead.
6 out of 7 lightning scars.
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Review - The Inexplicable Logic of my Life
From Lambda Literary Award winning author Benjamin Alire Saenz, author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, comes another young adult tour de force – The Inexplicable Logic of my Life.
Sal is adopted. He lost his mother when he was only three and has grown up living with his adoptive father. But as Sal moves into his senior year of high school he starts to wonder about the psychological credibility of nature versus nurture. Is his new tendency to fight with his fists an inheritance from his unknown bio dad? Along with his best friend Sam (short for Samantha) and their new buddy Fito, Sal embarks on a journey of self-discovery, wading through familial tragedies to figure out who he really is and to write about it in his college admissions essay. The Inexplicable Logic of my Life is a story of friendship and of the importance those we love have in our lives.
The beginning moves almost sluggishly, making it a hard book to pick up once it’s been put down, but there is no denying Saenz’s literary talent. The book is peppered with phrases and quotes that make the reader stop and think about what they’ve just read.
Some examples of this extraordinary prose:
“Living is an art, not a science.”
“Life wasn’t always about deserve. That much I knew.”
“I knew I was wearing a question mark on my face.”
“I recorded a part of the phone call, and Mima didn’t know it. So her voice will never be extinct.”
“I knew why people were afraid of the future. The future wasn’t going to look like the past.”
Once you move past the initially slow beginning it is impossible not to be drawn in by the rip-tide like force of Saenz’s rhythmic prose and poignant dialogue. His characters are rich, they’re thoughtful, and they’re real in a way that most fictional characters aren’t. There’s nothing cartoonish about them. They are one hundred percent grounded in reality. From their dialogue to their facial expressions to the way that the narrator, Sal, watches them and sees how they react. These characters are the essence of humanity – and that more than anything else is what sets Saenz’s particular brand of YA apart from everything else.
Unlike a lot of contemporary young adult fiction this book really has substance. It demands that you pause, that you think. It’s existential by nature. And yet it doesn’t feel heavy handed. Saenz has managed to create a teenage world that lives beyond the bounds created by age. This book, like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, will appeal to every age demographic, from teen all the way up to senior citizen, because not only does it manage to capture the teenage essence of Sal, Sam, and Fito, but it manages to distill humanity – making Mima, Sal’s grandmother, the love interest in a genre that is usually filled with doomed teenage romances.
7 out of 7 lightning scars. Read it!
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Jay Asher is one of those authors who has captivated audiences with his raw and emotional storytelling. I first fell in love with Asher’s writing when I picked up Thirteen Reasons Why (2006) in middle school. It has since become one of the books that travels with me wherever I go. One of the books that I can read again and again and never be disappointed. I always gain something new from its pages.
This was one of the reasons that What Light climbed to the forefront of my Chanukah list this year. I didn’t even know what it was about but it was by Asher and therefore I needed it on my shelf. This is only Asher’s second solo novel – he wrote The Future of Us with Carolyn Mackler in 2012 – which for me was at best a one time read that has since sat untouched on the back page of my kindle. Something of Asher’s spark and the raw grit of Thirteen Reasons Why was missing from this playful novel. It seemed to sit on the surface rather than deep dive into emotional territory.
But What Light balances in the region between Asher’s two other novels. It is both raw and emotional and yet still never enough.
What Life is a Christmas book if ever I’ve seen one and yet it’s not about religion or Santa Claus it’s about the feeling of the season. Sierra, Asher’s protagonist lives on a Christmas Tree Farm, making the setting apropos for this holiday romance. Every year Sierra and her parents spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas selling their trees at a lot in California. Sierra essentially lives two lives: the life where she goes to school with her friends in Oregon and the life where she sells Christmas trees with her parents and hangs out with her California-best-bud, Heather. But this might be the last winter of the lot and California and for Sierra that means the memories have to last forever.
Enter Caleb. Caleb is the bad boy of the California town that Sierra lives in every winter. He has a bad reputation and yet for Sierra he’s a mystery with a strange magnetic pull. From the moment of his entrance What Light becomes a holiday romance with all the trimmings of a typical YA read. Yet Asher manages to sharpen the edges of what would otherwise be a dull concept. Caleb is not just a do-gooder buying up trees to help families who can’t afford to buy them for themselves. He has a secret and Sierra is desperate to find out if his secret matches up with the dangerous rumors.
Sierra and Caleb’s romance is a twister of emotion and secrets and yet I found that the entire book moved far too fast. At times I found the undercarriage of Caleb and Sierra’s stories to be shallow. I wanted the deep dive that Asher gave me in Thirteen Reasons Why. I wanted to feel more than just the back of my throat tightening up at the final crescendo. I wanted all out tears. And yet I was left just shy of that.
Don’t get me wrong – I’ll read What Light again. I’m certain that there is more nuance for me to find with each read-through. And I don’t doubt that with each reading the characters of Caleb and Sierra will grow and change. Reading What Light was a pleasure from page one. The fact that I read the book in less than a day speaks to that. But I was left wanting more. Wanting the ending to be a little bit messy. Wanting to be kept guessing just a little bit more. I wanted some grit to clog up the gears of the book so that the pages didn’t turn quite so smoothly.
What I got, however, was an afternoon where my eyes weren’t drawn to my computer and the ever-alluring siren call of Netflix. I got an afternoon where I tumbled into the love story of a girl and a holiday and traditions and a boy with a secret. And I emerged refreshed and ready to pick up my next book.
5 out of 7 lightning scars.
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“Six were taken. Five came back” the cover proclaims underneath a title that fades, that crumbles, into the sand of the cover image – an empty swing set nestled on a foggy beach. There are six sets of swing chains. The fifth swing is missing, empty. Gone.
The Leaving, by Tara Altebrando, is the story of six kindergartners who were taken on their first full day of school, kidnapped, and never brought back. The town, the world, the investigators have branded it “The Leaving.” Now eleven years later five of the six stolen children return.
There’s only one problem. None of them can remember a thing. The past eleven years have been wiped clean like a dry-erase board. There are no memories of birthdays, of playing in the ocean, of drawing pictures. Everything and everyone from the last decade has been wiped clear. Even their memories of each other and of Max the one child who has yet to return.
The Leaving is a puzzle of a story forcing the reader along with the central characters to try and unravel the truth. Who took them? Where have they been for all this time? How are they connected? Why them? Where is Max? And is it even possible for them to fit back into their old lives, the lives they’d been taken from when they were five?
The narrative rotates between three central characters. Lucas and Scarlett are two of the returned. They don’t remember anything but they feel like they were “together”, like they meant something to one another. And Avery, the younger sister of Max, four at the time of “The Leaving” and now fifteen and just trying to get on with her life.
Together the three work to unravel the mystery of “The Leaving.”
This is the kind of book that keeps you reading. It’s not particularly full of literary merit, but it’s a jarring read sometimes bordering on science fiction and sometimes veering towards true-crime. Altebrando has created a world in which the mind plays just as big a role as any individual character. Her writing probes the surface of psychology and philosophy hinting at the deeper questions of how memory works and why we remember what we do.
The Leaving is a deeply stirring read. It begs heavy questions all while compelling you to race forward towards the end and the hope of a real conclusion. Something to tie up the squiggly strands that Altebrando has been weaving together for the last four hundred pages.
The end leaves something to be desired but I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t by design. The real world doesn’t hand you the ending you’ve always wanted folded neatly into a package. Things are often left messy even if that means they aren’t altogether satisfying.
The Leaving is worth reading if only because it takes you out of your own life and sets you on the path to adventure.
5 out of 7 lightning scars.
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From Olympic gold medalist Shawn Johnson comes her debut YA novel The Flip Side, the story of Charlie Ryland, elite gymnast and Olympic hopeful’s, double life. In the gym she’s Charlie – polished, focused, and Queen of the beam. At school she’s Charlotte – reserved, straight A student, and the newest member of the student council. But what happens when a real world distraction threatens her focus inside the gym? Enter Bobby Singh – the boy she’s not allowed to date. Disaster and hilarity ensue.
From the outset it’s necessary to admit that this isn’t the most original idea. It’s Hannah Montana meets Stick It mixed in with a little bit of ABC Family’s Make it or Break it. But what the novel lacks in originality it makes up for with believability. Johnson is an expert in the gym and that comes through in every passage, in every paragraph, in every page of the novel. Charlie is a real elite gymnast and Johnson manages to help the reader understand the pressures that come with that, the aches and pains of the body, and the clash of being a teenage girl and a professional athlete all at the same time.
While not exactly well written, The Flip Side had me racing through pages faster than Johnson can flip around on a balance beam. I had to keep reading, to know what trouble Charlie got herself into next. The excited and brave nature of Charlie Ryland, as a protagonist and narrator, is what kept The Flip Side afloat – her desire for two lives – that of gymnastics super star and of normal teenage girl answered a duality in all of us – the desire to both grow up and hold on to childhood at the same time.
I’m eager to see what Johnson does next. Her writing is simplistic and obvious in some ways (and she did work with a co-writer on this), but she clearly has the ability to create emotionally true characters, which is no easy feat. The Flip Side is the perfect book to read if you enjoyed watching gymnastics at the Rio Olympics. The Flip Side lets you in on what it’s like to be that girl running at the vault, swinging on the bars, and flipping on the beam.
5 out of 7 lightning scars:
A definite must read after the Final Five’s domination in Rio and Laurie Hernandez’s amazing win on Dancing with the Stars!
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Review - When We Collided
From Emery Lord, author of Open Road Summer and The Start of Me and You, comes When We Collided the story of two lives crashing together like puzzle pieces that aren’t meant to fit. But somehow Lord manages to make them work together, because they need each other – Jonah and Vivi. Vivi and Jonah.
Lord’s newest novel switches perspectives starting with the emotional and charged voice of Vivi and then swinging down into Jonah’s steady and deep baritone. Vivi and her mother have just moved to Verona Cove for the summer. Jonah and his siblings have lived in the small California town for their entire lives – helping out at their father’s restaurant. But ever since Jonah’s father died of a heart attack months before, he and his two older siblings have had to learn how to take care of their entire family as their mother disappears into her bedroom, unable to carry on with life as it is.
Vivi is up one day and even higher the next. Each morning she flicks a pill over the side of a cliff and watches it ping down into the water. The only other clue, we, as readers, get into Vivi’s psychology are her mother’s constant inquiries as to whether Vivi is “okay.”
When We Collided is about the literal collision course, the crashing of symbols that occurs, when Vivi and Jonah meet and their lives become twisted up in each other. Vivi brings Jonah’s family back to life – but at what cost?
Lord’s latest YA masterpiece is a testament to how hard it is to really know someone. From the very first sentence her characters bounce off the page – their voices high and clear and ringing with truth, with observations, with beauty.
Through Lord’s prose and Vivi’s eyes the sun casts “shadows of the leaves like lace on the sidewalk.” We learn that even though she flicks one pill over the cliff, Vivi still takes another because it “keeps the shadow creatures at bay.” She gives us hints about last year, about what happened when the shadow creatures “curled their inky arms around” her and turned her “Technicolor world…[to] crackling gray static.”
Jonah tells us that he needs to run “in a place where memories don’t fill…[his] peripheral vision,” a place where the ghosts of who he used to be aren’t watching him “like more than spectators.” Emery Lord manages to capture and bring to life two entirely unique voices – voices that never coincide or become confused.
Vivi and Jonah, and their families, as characters, are grounded and realistic and the dialogue only serves to add to each unique character’s dimensions. We know Jonah from the moment he starts speaking on page fourteen – he is solid, he is steady, and yet he is filled with an untouchable sadness that Lord does an amazing job of conveying with incredible subtlety.
Vivi, on the other hand is illusive – we listen to her, we watch her and we still don’t know who she is apart from her actions, from her thoughts. She rarely takes us back and so for the most part we’re living with her, in only the present. It is rare to find a narrator who holds you at arms length and makes you guess and wonder all the while loving her even as she never gives an inch, never shows any indication of wanting to let you in. Vivi is the epitome of an unreliable narrator and yet with each description, with each small glimpse, even if it’s just the way the sun plays through the leaves, she hooks us in even more. She teaches us what life is like when the world is off its axis and there is nothing you can do but watch it come crashing down around you.
7 out of 7 lightning scars:
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Eileen Cook, author of Remember, Year of Mistaken Discoveries, and The Almost Truth paints a wild and compelling story in her new YA novel, With Malice: a novel.
Jill Charon wakes up in a hospital missing the last month of her life. The last thing she remembers is hanging out with her friends Simone and Tara after their school play, Grease. That was March and now it’s May. In the intervening time Jill and her best friend Simone went on a school trip to Italy that ended in tragedy – a car crash leaving Jill injured and Simone dead.
Jill remembers nothing, but the whole world is certain of one thing, she was in the driver’s seat. Jill is forced to battle her own brain to regain her memories. She’s never quite sure if the flashes and images that sometimes pop into her head are memories or made up. Her neuro-psychologist Dr. Weeks tells her that it could be either, the brain is a miraculous muscle – it’s impossible to know definitively. Jill is steadfast that she would never do anything to hurt Simone but as the world, aided by internet sites and the stories of classmates from the Italy trip, begins to turn on her, Jill starts to question her own motives. Could she have crashed the car on purpose?
Cook weaves an impossibly complex story, pitting the human brain and our own memories against each other. Jill is an incredibly sympathetic character. The book is woven through with police reports, interviews, and internet posts that add layers and kinks to Jill’s own narrative. She makes you want to believe her, to champion her innocence. Her voice is strong and certain, and the few points where it does waver, her interactions with Dr. Weeks, and her roommate, at the rehabilitation center, Anna, solidify her position. Cook does a brilliant job of painting Jill’s father as the villain, of making it all seem like a conspiracy, like the world is out to get Jill.
At times the book is reminiscent of Amanda Knox’s story, but it is unique in itself. Jill and Simone’s friendship feels real and natural and the reports of their fighting ring true to all girl relationships. Cook has managed to transport the reader to Italy without Jill ever remembering a moment of being there. The interviews, reports, and guidebook excerpts create a sense of place that leaves the reader feeling certain that they’ve been to Italy too.
What Cook does best, in With Malice, is leave plausible deniability. All the reader has to go on, like Jill herself, are memories and opinions, nothing that is grounded in fact. Up until the very last section I was adamant that Jill was innocent. But with the big revelation at the end, and the final scene that might be memory and might be fiction, when I closed the book I was left wondering what the Hell had just happened. Had I just spent over three hundred pages sympathizing with a murderer? The beauty is that we’ll never know. Cook leaves it open for interpretation. And that in itself is a mind fuck worth racing through this book for.
This was a cover-to-cover in a day kind of read. Un-put-downable. Cook has outdone herself.
7 out of 7 lightning scars.
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Review - The Last Boy and Girl in the World
From Siobhan Vivian, author of The List and Not That Kind of Girl comes The Last Boy and Girl in the World. Keeley Hewitt’s hometown of Aberdeen is sinking. Her parents are fighting, the government is trying to buy out all of the residents so they can build “Lake Aberdeen,” and there’s a weird tension between Keeley and her best friend Morgan. While the adults of Aberdeen plan for the future it’s up to the kids to find the right way to say goodbye.
Jesse Ford, who Keeley’s loved since the sixth grade, is finally paying attention to her and together they use their quirky and over-the-top senses of humor to make their last few weeks in Aberdeen go out with a bang. There are abandoned house parties, a rain drenched spring fling, and countless tear filled goodbyes.
What makes The Last Boy and Girl in the World special, however, is that even though in the end Keeley is with the right boy, this is not a love story between boy and girl, but rather an homage to girlfriends. Keeley and Morgan’s relationship is real – it’s filled with all of the grit and glamour a friendship spanning almost two decades should be. Vivian highlights the stress fractures that result from adding a third friend to the mix, countless boyfriends, and the inability to grow up at the same speed and velocity as our BFFs.
This is by far Vivian at her best. Her characters, from Levi Hamrick, the sheriff’s son, to Jesse Ford, Keeley’s crush, and Morgan, her best friend, seem grounded and realistic in a way that many of her past characters haven’t been. These aren’t Technicolor sketches but rather real people who force us into the story and make us feel. Though the ending left something to be desired and lacked resolution in the relationship between Keeley and Morgan, it had a ring of reality to it. Not everything in life can be tied up with a ribbon and a perfectly executed bow. Sometimes life and relationships take time to heal.
Vivian, like Sarah Dessen – the acclaimed Queen of YA – creates relationships that leap off the page and mirror our own high school experiences. It is easy to relate to Keeley and to Morgan. The Last Boy and Girl in the World proved impossible to put down, even for a Netflix binge. Read it, live it, love it.
6 out of 7 lightning scars:
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