Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me by Kristen Chandler

I’ve been interested in reading Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me ever since I read Holly’s review where she said her “expectations held up from the first page until the last”. Yup, it was grabbed on an impulse at this bookstore when I was in Southern New England, and I settled into it quite happily when I got home.
The Premise:  When the wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National park, it was to put the park’s ecosystem back into balance, but for the locals that live around the park, many of them farmers with herds of animals to keep safe, the wolves are a threat to their livelihood. KJ grew up in West End, Montana, and has always been the gawky girl who kept her head down, but lately that has changed. KJ is suddenly getting noticed – both for growing out of her awkwardness, and for speaking out about the wolves.  Everyone has an opinion on this hot topic, and not everyone is happy with KJ’s involvement. Even KJ’s taciturn father, and Virgil, the boy she has a crush on, don’t always see eye to eye with her on the wolves. The more KJ tries to make things better, the worse it seems to get.
My Thoughts: Wolves, Boys & Other Things That Might Kill Me is a YA that stands out from the pack. Yes, it is a coming of age story like a lot of YA out there is, but I felt like there was a different air to KJ’s character than your typical teen-aged girl. Maybe it was her upbringing in Montana with a gruff and outdoorsy father, or maybe it’s the many embarrassing experiences already under her belt, but in this story KJ has a quiet assurance that she never seems to lose. For example, when she comes back to school her junior year looking less “like a Peppermint Patty” and gets comments from friends, she may be perturbed at first, but soon moves on. It was so nice NOT to read about a teen girl who sweats over what other people think or want. That’s not to say that KJ doesn’t come across as the young and inexperienced kid she is – she does that plenty. It’s just that being self-sufficient and following her own council are not things she needs to work on.
Instead, for KJ, growing up involves discovering her passion for the wolves reintroduced into Yellowstone.  It’s not really KJ’s intention to be associated with the debate, but she has no choice on the matter when she’s assigned to write a column about the wolves for her school’s newspaper. Her innocuous article that doesn’t condemn the wolves’ presence (and may instead romanticize them), creates a stir from the local farmers. As more livestock is killed, the anger and frustration increases. Wolf-friendly overtures are met with violence.  It’s easy to paint the farmers as narrow-minded hicks, and that’s something KJ thinks at first, but the more she gets involved the more she has to look at the story from the other side and understand where the anger is coming from.  KJ’s straight-talking voice captures the complexity of the whole situation. A cast of characters from Virgil’s wolf researcher mother to the class jerk whose family owns a farm bring perspectives from all sides. There’s even some friction between KJ, Virgil, and her own father over the whole thing
Wolves, Boys & Other Things That Might Kill Me doesn’t have pat and perfect answers. It simply shows the muddle that is human life. Even KJ’s romance with the zen new kid, is not immune.  It was nice to see KJ and Virgil’s relationship blossom amongst the wolves and controversy, but they’re also two kids in high school. Like all things in this story, their interactions manage to be special and yet grounded in the real world.
I also have to make a mention of the special relationship KJ had with her dad. I loved all the shades of their relationship. He’s tough on KJ and is difficult to have a conversation with (KJ has learned to read her father based on body language and the occasional monosyllable), but he’s also protective. I adored their unique partnership, and for me one of the strongest father-daughter relationships I’ve read in YA. I actually wished there were more scenes with them alone.
I’d say that this book was one that quietly laid out the situation and left it at that. Much like KJ, it has no big flashy agenda, it just tells it like it is. I liked this, but it is a subtle sort of strength, not one that makes a obvious impression. For that reason, I feel that not everyone is going to be affected by this story. The other minor criticism I had is that KJ read much younger to me than sixteen.  I had her pegged as a pretty independent twelve or thirteen until I was corrected by the jacket copy which says she’s a junior in high school. I think I would have liked this book a tad more if KJ felt more like a sixteen-year old to me while I read it.
Overall: You know the saying “still waters run deep”? I feel like if you take that and apply it to a teenage girl, you have KJ, and that is funneled into the story told in Wolves, Boys, & Other Things That Might Kill Me. I was charmed by the unassuming style of this one, and I liked that it told a self-discovery story that felt real and nuanced. But I also feel that its strength is subtle, easing back from rather than lingering on the dramatic and emotional scenes.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
Book Harbinger – positive
Book Fare Delights – 5 out of 5

Unraveling Isobel by Eileen Cook

Unraveling Isobel
Eileen Cook

This is a review of an eARC obtained through GalleyGrab.
The Premise: When Isobel’s mother meets a man on the internet and marries him three months later, “appalled” doesn’t begin to cover Isobel’s reaction, especially since it means uprooting in her senior year and moving into his creepy estate. Isobel misses her friends, finds her step-father Richard smarmy, and her gorgeous new step-brother Nathaniel hates her. Then weird things start to happen and Isobel begins to think she has bigger problems: either her she’s seeing ghosts, or she’s starting to show signs of the schizophrenia that runs in her family.
My Thoughts: Isobel is a grumpy teen narrator, who has nothing but snark when it comes to describing the adults around her.  Next to her mother’s sunny, somewhat oblivious outlook on her new life, Isobel is a dark little cloud, and she recounts her mom’s new marriage and their move to Nairne Island with an amusing lack of enthusiasm.  I understand that can be a very fine line between sounding like a typical teen questioning authority and sounding like a snotty brat, but for me, Isobel comes down on the right side of that line because of the adults around her. The biggest red flag is one that we get practically on page one: Richard (Isobel’s stepfather) had a wife and daughter who died seven months ago.  Isobel’s mother seems willing to overlook this, focusing more on her new marriage as a chance to remake herself with little thought to Isobel’s feelings on the matter.
Yes, this is a book with Bad Parents. On one hand, this trope works here because without Isobel’s parents’ choices, there would be no story. We wouldn’t read about Isobel’s trials and tribulations on Nairne, including a stint trying to fit in at school with the popular crowd, or her run-ins with Nathaniel, the other teen in the same dysfunctional boat. On the other hand, their characterization was very convenient to the story. Isobel’s mother was incredibly unaware while Richard was just so self-serving.  While I wished for some more depth to Isobel’s mother and step-father, at least their interactions with Isobel rang true, especially between Isobel and her mother.
Isobel and her time adjusting to her new life felt realistic, and the mystery/ psychological thriller aspect of the story was seamlessly interwoven into it. At one moment, Isobel may be calling her best friend to rant about her new life, the next she is having a strange experience that she can’t explain. Things begin to appear in her room which her mother and step-father insist are put there by Isobel herself. She doesn’t know if they are right and begins to investigate the house while fearing for her own sanity.  This felt like a modern version of a Gothic thriller complete with the haunted mansion and secrets in the attic, but it was a very simple story without any huge, surprising twists in the plot. I think the biggest strength was the interesting mix of the Gothic, psychological element with the modern teenage voice.
The problem I think was that the story didn’t feel like it went far enough. The beginning was very promising, but by the end I wanted more to Isobel’s adjustment to school and her relationship with her step-brother, and at the same time, I wanted more on the mystery of what Isobel was seeing in her new house. These two plots began with great promise but took a very safe and ultimately very bland route. I never really feared that Isobel was sinking into madness, and there was no real mystery of who the bad guy was. Nor is there any emotional depth in the secondary characters. I enjoyed Isobel’s growth in dealing with her genetic predisposition, but I lamented the way in which Nathaniel went from a brooder with issues to becoming a rather generic character. He lost his personality somewhere along the way.  If this story was deeper and darker, I think it would have pushed it to a higher level.
Overall: A really quick, entertaining read. I found the narrator amusing and I liked the mix of contemporary YA with Gothic thriller in Unraveling Isobel, but I think it loses something by not pushing the envelope more. It was fine brain candy for an afternoon.
Unraveling Isobel is slated for publication 1/3/2012
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
I didn’t see any up yet. Let me know if I missed you!

Flat-Out Love by Jessica Park

Flat-Out Love
Jessica Park

If you’ve been following my blog for a while you will see that I tend to avoid self-published books. The exception has been if it was an author I read and loved already. Another exception is that I see a review from a blogger I really trust. Chachic’s review and her description of a slow burn romance (my favorite!) really had me interested, and $3.99 for a novel length e-book is well priced for giving it a shot. I actually ended up liking this one so much that I bought the book again in hard copy form so I could physically flip through it’s pages. That should tell you something right there.
The Premise: Upon arriving in Boston and discovering that the apartment she rented through Craigslist is actually a burrito restaurant, stranded college freshman Julie Seagle is saved by her mom’s college roommate. Erin Watkins let’s Julie move into her son’s old room, and soon Julie is immersed in the lives of the eccentric Watkin family. Parents Erin and Roger are very nice when they are around, but more often than not, leave their children alone in pursuit of academia (one’s a professor at Harvard Law, another is a oceanographic researcher). Their three children are all uniquely bright, but somehow something is not quite right. Middle child Matt is working on two majors at MIT: physics and math, and while he’s a sweet guy, he shuts down at odd times. Youngest Celeste is thirteen but dresses as if she was eight, talks with a high vocabulary but without contractions, and has a dependence on a life-sized cardboard cutout of her brother that she calls Flat Finn. And then there’s Finn, the good-looking and gregarious oldest son. Out traveling the world, he’s only available to Julie via Facebook, text messages, and email, but he offers some insight into what’s wrong with the Watkins.  Over time, Julie’s long distance exchanges with Finn become something more, but it’s very easy to get mixed up between your feelings and reality.
Read an excerpt of Flat-Out Love here
My Thoughts: Julie is a bit of a rare fish in her hometown: social but with an interest in learning that she doesn’t think her friends will understand. So when she arrives in Boston and ends up living with a family that is academic and intellectual to a fault, despite their smarts, Julie manages to fit right in. Soon she’s bantering with the younger Watkin siblings and trading one-liners and sharing facebook statuses. There were some too-perfect zingers in the bunch but most of the conversations felt real enough to forgive this. The Watkin awkwardness trumps all, particularly with regard to the elephant in the room:

”   […] what struck Julie the most about Celeste had to do about what-or who?-was in the chair next to her.
‘Oh, Julie! I didn’t introduce you properly, did I?’ Celeste chirped happily and then turned to the seat next to her. ‘Flat Finn, this is Julie. Julie, this is Flat Finn.’
Erin poured herself some sparkling water, and Roger continued daydreaming about brine, but Julie was sure she heard Matt catch his breath. She eyed the seat again.
Frankly, she’d been hoping to get through dinner without having to address this issue.
No one else had mentioned anything for far, but this must be what Matt had started to tell her about: A life-size cardboard cutout of their brother Finn leaned stiffly angled against the chair, his gaze fixed rigidly on the ceiling’s light fixture.”
Of course, Julie being the fixer she is, she sets out to help Celeste with her obsession with Flat Finn and with her not-quite-fitting-in-with-her-age-group problems. But it turns out that Celeste is the Watkin with the most obvious problems; the other members of the family are just better at hiding that something is off . Erin and Roger are often gone, leaving Matt to take care of Celeste and the house. Matt is antisocial and over-protective of his little sister, and tight lipped about what caused Celeste’s attachment to her cardboard brother-figure in the first place.  So Julie lives with the Watkins and tries to help out with what she understands. In the meantime, she goes to class, tries to figure out her major, begins casually dating, and continues to develop a friendship with Matt in person and Finn online.
Finn’s charm and ease with Julie online is incredibly magnetic, and knowing that she’s in his room, sleeping on his bed, just adds to the allure. It isn’t long before Julie has a serious crush on the eldest Watkin, and she suspects that he may feel the same way. Finn is who she goes to to confide in and to ask advice on the other Watkins.
I loved the way that the romance unfolded in this story. It’s more about emotional connections, not physical ones, and it’s a slow courtship that spans from the first day of college, through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, into Julie’s second semester and ends at the beginning of a new school year. It hit some of my soft spots including love from afar, the dependable good guy, and a couple more of my favorite tropes. Flat-Out Love put its own spin on these though with it’s use of social media peppered throughout real life interactions.  All of these have plenty of humor in them, and the weirdness and vulnerability of the Watkins added an extra dimension. I correctly guessed the family’s dark secret, but not all the details. When it all comes out, oh, what a deep and turbulent well of emotion that was. I was very invested in finding out how Julie’s relationship with the Watkins (and one Watkin in particular) would end and I wanted so badly for things to be alright. I adored how things were handled.
Also kudos on the quality of the copy editing in this book. This wins the prize for having no obvious typos, which I’m sorry to say, I see a higher number of in self-published books.
Overall: Loved it. You know those books where you’re excited to tell the world about? I think this is one of them.  The more I think about Flat-Out Love the more I feel this “I need to pimp this book” feeling. It’s so funny and romantic and heart-wrenching all at once.  Yes, when I think about it, I had a couple of “I beg to differ” moments (example: the girl hates twitter and loves Facebook), but when Julie and the Watkins are amazing and overachieving, something had to balance them out. It was nice to see a book that integrated social media into it’s plot so well, and that has a main character that is in college. And the sweet romance with an emotional connection left me very satisfied.
(Page 362 killed me. Page 384 killed me in a different way. Go read this and then we can talk. On twitter!)
Buy (ebook): Amazon (kindle) | B&N (eBook) | Other places to buy online
(paperback): Amazon | B&N
Other reviews:
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive
The Reading Date – positive
Interesting Links:
Flat-Out Love website

Raw Blue by Kirsty Eager

Raw Blue
Kirsty Eager

I’m participating in both book tours that Holly is hosting to promote Raw Blue by Kirsty Eager and Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood. I must have signed up early because I got to read and review Six Impossible Things last week, and this week I got my hands on Raw Blue! Thank you again to Holly for hosting it and for passing around her personal copy of the book.
The Premise: Carly is a nineteen year old college dropout who works as a cook so she can work nights and evenings and spend her days out on the waves. She has no ambitions other than to keep covering the necessities so she can surf as much as possible.  There’s a dark reason for Carly’s step back from her family and friends, her move close to the ocean to surf, and why she generally wants to be left alone, but despite Carly’s painful awareness of her own inability to be “normal” around others, there are people inching their way into her life. It is up to Carly whether she will find a way to move on from her past, or if it will pull her back from real relationships forever.
My Thoughts: Carly’s life seems so simple: surf, work, sleep, wake up, and do it all again. The book starts off with a typical day for her, plopping the reader next to her on the ocean. As she matter-of-factly describes her runs on the waves, I let the talk of coastal conditions, territorial disputes, and surf culture wash over me as if it was a foreign language. Surfing is followed by a shift at work as a cook, and later time at home with Carly’s neighbor, Hannah. This should be an easy read, and it is, but at the same time, there’s something slowly and quietly weighing the story down, and that is Carly herself. It’s quickly evident that she is just surviving day-to-day, throwing herself into surfing and avoiding people.
Since the story is told from her point of view, her feelings of awkwardness and of being “uptight” are clear and powerful.  I really empathized with her, and It’s not long before I understood the reason behind Carly’s skittishness. It really hit me when I did.  I read a few reviews of Raw Blue that didn’t really say what had happened to Carly, and I usually try to avoid stories that deal with rape, so I wanted to warn others if this is something that they just can’t handle. Had I known, I may have never read Raw Blue, but now that I have finished it, I will tell you this: I think I would have missed out.
Even though Raw Blue  took a little more out of me than most books, giving me a sense of impotent protectiveness for Carly, there was always something, whether it was surfing or the people around Carly, that kept me from getting completely wrung out. The story seems so unassuming, the pace: subdued and straightforward. At first the window into Carly’s life is mundane with surfing as the highlight, but then somehow, those ordinary details that aggregate into Carly’s life ARE the story. Oh-so-subtly, between her hours on the water, her time in the kitchen and her small, seemingly minor nothing-conversations with her neighbor Hannah, openfaced teen Danny, and of course Ryan, Carly has made connections to other people. It’s these small human connections that save Carly and elevate the story.
I really liked that the three people that Carly connects to the most were people who looked at quiet Carly and wanted to know her anyway. They all let her be herself but they also nudged her a little more into the world by their example. Danny, who just decides who he likes with his own synesthesia barometer, Hannah, separated from her husband but enjoying men, and then there’s Ryan, who looks at Carly and thinks she’s a good thing. It’s Ryan who has the biggest impact. When Carly first meets him, he seems so inscrutable, but when they get closer, he has amazing sense of when to push and when not to. He’d almost be too perfect if not for the unsureness that he lets slip every so often. I loved their slow, halting steps toward one another. I was on tenterhooks I tell you.
And that ending. It wasn’t what I imagined, but made me feel really good all the same. It was just right.
Overall: Not an easy read, but still a very rewarding one. It’s a quiet story about personal pain but it’s also a story about living. Something about it just crept up on me and made a lasting impression of the good kind.  And I like that.
Buy: Fishpondworld | Other
Other reviews (not a negative one in the bunch!):
The Book Harbinger – positive
Angieville – positive
Steph Su Reads – 4.5 out of 5
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive
Inkcrush – “5 stars all the way”

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

There are a lot of YA by Australian authors getting plenty of buzz in book blogging circles lately, and I’ve been eager to read them. Luckily, Holly at The Book Harbinger is hosting a book tour for Six Impossible Things and Raw Blue – two Aussie books that aren’t available in the U.S yet, but are getting rave reviews. I signed up pronto, and got the first slot for Six Impossible Things. 🙂 Thank you Holly for hosting this book tour and letting us read your personal copy of these books. That is what I call generous.

The Premise: I love the one already on the back blurb: “Fourteen year old nerd-boy Dan Ceriell is not quite coping with a reversal of family fortune, moving house, new school hell, a mother with a failing wedding cake business, a just-out gay dad, and an impossible crush on the girl next door. His life is a mess, but for now he’s narrowed it down to just six impossible things… ”

My Thoughts: Poor Dan.Things do not begin well for him in this story.  Just a few months ago, Dan lived with both his parents in a spacious house in a well-to-do neighborhood and went to a prestigious private school. They had the appearance of a happy, perfect family, but problems were surfacing.  Dan’s parents had been fighting more and more, until finally, his father drops “the bombshell – the family business was in the hands of receivers, he had been declared bankrupt, he was gay, and he was moving out.”

Now, it’s just Dan and his mom in a stinky, freezing house left to them by an eccentric great aunt. All their possessions (owned by the business it turns out) have been taken away, and Dan has to go to public school. In the break before Year Nine of school starts, Dan is pretty miserable. He dreads being the new kid and hopes he can reinvent himself into something a little more normal and a little less nerdy than he actually is. And he falls head over heels for the lovely girl next door, Estelle, before he has actually ever officially met her.

When you look at the set up of this story, it has the bones for something quite dismal, but thankfully, it is not. In fact, I fell in love with Dan’s voice, which is of the long suffering teenage boy variety (reminds me of Adrian Mole without actual diary entries). When Dan puts his situation into words, somehow, the humor his take infuses into the story makes things seem less bad and a little more ridiculous. Take his mother’s idea to go into the wedding cake business, for instance. Dan notes, “She’s going to be making wedding cakes. It wouldn’t occur to everyone in the throes of a marriage breakdown, but we do irony in this house in addition to sarcasm.”  He is further appalled whenever he walks into the house during his mom’s consults, and overhears his mother encouraging yet another bride-to-be to consider not getting married at all. When his mother plays Radiohead on repeat and extols the virtues of Thom Yorke, it is DEFCON 1 up in the Ceriell household.

So navigating his new life doesn’t start well, and it continues to have its share of disaster, like being zeroed in on by a bully on the first day of school and getting a job to help his mom, only to find out that he won’t be paid. Luckily, it has its triumphs as well, and these ultimately win out over Dan’s bad situation. Dan goes from trying to keep himself unobtrusive to actually making friends, and there are plenty of unique characters and impossible situations that provide fodder for his observations. Dan himself is revealed in his narrative – his nerdy list making (always 6 items long); his insightful musings; his soft spot for Howard (their dog); and his concern for his mother – all endearing traits.

Then there is of course his crush on Estelle. This begins a little uncomfortably for me, because Dan had yet to meet her and he’d already put her on a high pedestal. His thoughts are sweet but border on obsessive:

“It feels as though I’m thinking about Estelle most of the time. As though someone has changed my default setting to ‘Estelle’ without my permission, or she’s become my brain’s screen saver. Desire has merged with a (completely alien) noble feeling of wanting to be able to offer Estelle my absolutely best self.  The power of this is undercut by not really knowing what my best self is. But it’s got to be more than the current sum of parts.
All this churning and I haven’t even met her. What’s she going to think about me? Uncool me? Trying-to-hide-the-nerd me?”

I think that part of Dan’s crush is the lonely place he’s in after his dad left, but thankfully as things get better for him, Estelle becomes more human.  Dan gets to know her as a person and they form a proper friendship. It’s because of this, not his first crush on her that I ended up rooting for Dan to get the girl he likes so much. The relationship was a nice subplot to  to Dan getting his bearings after life was upended.

This ends up being a pretty heartwarming story, with some bits where I felt that Dan got lucky with the help he and his mother got from people around them, but I feel like Dan earned his happiness after what he went through. Dan is very funny, but the story isn’t just funny. It has sweetness makes it hit that surprising place where you are in between laughter and a bit of tears. Laughter wins out.

Overall: I loved this one. I picked it up and could not stop reading because of Dan’s voice. I think I’m just a sucker for a narrator that has both a sense of humor and plenty of vulnerability. That perfect mix is hard to find, and while Six Impossible Things is something that’s aimed at the YA and younger audience and has a simple premise, it also has a complexity to it that makes it feel more substantial than it’s 240-ish pages, and more universally appealing. Pick it up if you are looking for a feel good read with comedic appeal.

Buy: FishpondWorld (free shipping!)

Other Reviews:
The Book Harbinger – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook Review – positve
Inkcrush Review – 5 stars

Let’s Get Lost by Sarra Manning

Let's Get Lost
Sarra Manning

I loved Sarra Manning’s adult offerings quite a bit, but I had not (until now) tried her young adult books, which I’ve also heard good things about. I bought many of her backlist in a glom-fest a couple months ago and grabbed Let’s Get Lost for a plane ride from NY to AZ.

The Premise: Isabel is a troubled kid. She’s the Queen of the Mean Girls at her all-girl school, and there seems to be no particular reason for her reign of terror. No one can reach her, even after her mother’s recent death. Girls expecting a softer Isabel at school at the start of her last year are disappointed by an Isabel that is just as cold as ever. That is how it looks on the outside. Internally, Isabel feels stuck. She decided to be mean in high school because she was bullied and insignificant in middle school, but now she can’t afford to relax her facade. Her crew aren’t really her friends and are constantly waiting for a slip. That’s when a chance encounter with college-aged Smith comes in. He doesn’t have expectations of what Isabel is like, and when she’s with him, she can be herself. That is, except for the fact that Smith doesn’t know Isabel is still just 17 and still in high school.

Read an excerpt of Let’s Get Lost here

My Thoughts: Of the three Manning books I’ve read so far (Unsticky, and You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me are the other two), Isabel is the most difficult character to like as a reader. The girl is no angel. We see Isabel at school, keeping her cohorts and other students in line with well placed verbal bombs, guaranteed to make the recipient squirm, and at home she bulldozes and back talks her frustrated father. Whenever she can, Isabel is out at clubs, stealing drinks off tables to get drunk, and pretends to be older than she actually is. Flanking her are three girls who she doesn’t like, who don’t like her, and who are just sticking around for the power and protection of their alpha girl group.  I think that if you can’t forgive Isabel for her many mistakes and nastiness, this story will be a difficult one to enjoy, but with Isabel as the narrator, at least we get an explanation for her actions, and we know that she doesn’t particularly like herself or what she’s doing. For me, it was a case of understanding why she acted the way she did, but not condoning it.

Smith on the other hand, is a much more sociable character. An easy-going guy with lots of friends, he accepts people as they are, including Isabel. The pull of this story for me was seeing the effect that being with Smith had on Isabel. For Isabel, being with him is like being on vacation as a normal teenager, not a girl constantly on guard. That side of her made me hope that somehow she could find a way out of her rut as Let’s Get Lost progressed. It was clear that Smith was a catalyst on Isabel’s life, but I wasn’t sure if he’d be a source of strength, or a point of weakness. On one hand Smith is a relief from the constant scrutiny Isabel deals with from school and her dad, but on the other, I wondered at the consequences of her lies, both to Smith and to everyone else about Smith.  I wanted Isabel escape the hole she’d dug for herself.  Throughout her narrative, you can feel Isabel’s underlying sadness. It’s like she has a dreamworld where Smith belongs that she’d also like to be, but she doesn’t believe she can attain it.

“My whole life had split into two: Smith and not Smith. I liked the Smith parts of it so much better. Already I was calculating how much of the weekend we had left and greedily clutching every hour to me as if it was precious. Was this what it was meant to feel like when you were really into someone? Was this what it felt like if you were in love?
As soon as I thought it, I knew that it was true. I kinda loved him. Or, like, I was in love with him. Either state of being was just too freaky to contemplate. The dripping toothbrush stilled in midair as I tried to pull myself together. I was a heartless, ungrateful wench of a girl who promised everyone who came into contact with me a one-way ticket to pain and hurt. I didn’t know how to love and I didn’t deserve to be loved back.”

If you’re wondering where Isabel’s parents are in this picture, her mom died pretty recently, and her father, (coincidentally a professor at the university Smith attends), is still devastated by the loss. Unresolved issues about her mother’s death hang in the air between them, and Isabel’s father ping-pongs between not being quite there, and being positively draconian. I really liked the complexity and imperfections of their relationship, and I liked that they share a prickly outside and high intelligence, which only leads to their butting-heads even more. This was refreshingly true-to-life. Also refreshing: that this was a Young Adult story that deals with the consequences of someone’s actions in a realistic way. There is no convenient lack of parents or neat resolution that absolves the teenaged protagonist of their sins. Isabel has to bear the reactions of others for what she’s done. And her mother’s death is an event that has it’s own consequences which Isabel has to deal with too.

Overall:  This was another good one but you have to work a little bit for it. The narrator does some unlikeable things, and that along with the high wall she’s built around herself makes her difficult to empathize with at the beginning, but as the book went on, it became easier to understand Isabel and what is beneath her mean girl veneer. It is well worth it to be patient and see where Isabel’s path leads, but if you can’t bring yourself to forgive her her misdeeds, this book will be more difficult  to enjoy. I found an unhappy girl who wants a different life under there, and the story doesn’t let her off easy – her actions have consequences that she must face. If you want a great story that deals with redemption, loss, first love, and teenage rebellion, Let’s Get Lost has it all. After reading it I have this sense of having returned from being in someone else’s headspace with a little bit more insight than I had before.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
About Happy Books – positive

Shut Out by Kody Keplinger

Shut Out
Kody Keplinger
The DUFF is one of my favorite reads of this year; I loved the real and unvarnished voice of the main character, a teen distracting herself from her problems by having a physical relationship. When I found out that Kody Keplinger had another book in the works, based on Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata, I mentally put it on my list as a book to look for in the fall.  But I didn’t have to wait that long – Shut Out was one of the offerings at BEA. Yep, I was so there. This is an early review of an ARC copy. This book doesn’t come out till September but I am planning a giveaway of my extra copy in a day or two!
The Premise: (taken from the back blurb) “Most high school sports teams have rivalries with other schools. At Hamilton High, it’s a civil war: the football team versus the soccer team. And for her part, Lissa is sick of it. Her quarterback boyfriend, Randy, is always ditching her for go pick a fight with the soccer team or to prank their locker room. And on three separate occasions Randy’s car has been egged while he and Lissa were inside, making out. She is done competing with a bunch of sweaty boys for her own boyfriend’s attention.
Lissa decides to end the rivalry once and for all: She and the other players’ girlfriends go on a hookup strike. The boys won’t get any action from them until the football and soccer teams make peace. What they don’t count on is a new sort of rivalry: an impossible girls-against-boys showdown that hinges on who will cave to their libidos first. And Lissa never sees her own sexual tension with the leader of the boys, Cash Sterling, coming.”
My Thoughts: What I liked about The DUFF was that its main character felt like a real teenager, and I was glad to see that the same is true about Shut Out. Lissa Daniels is a normal girl with a fairly typical life. She lives with her father, a counselor at an elementary school, and with her older bother, Logan . She’s a good student, has a steady boyfriend who fits in with her family, and she works at the local library as a part time job. Fairly normal stuff, except for losing her mother a few years ago in the same car crash that left her father in a wheelchair.
Then there’s dealing with her boyfriend’s obsession with the feud between the football and soccer teams at her high school. From Lissa’s point of view (a view shared by many), the feud is pointless; the teams belong to the same school, and hardly any of the boys can remember why they are fighting.  When Lissa tells her boyfriend Randy to stop before someone gets hurt, Randy doesn’t take her seriously. He is oblivious that Lissa’s problem with the feud has to do with how it affects their relationship, and Lissa finds it difficult to articulate her feelings. As it is, he brushes off her repeated requests to stop. That’s when Lissa gets fed up and organizes the hookup strike with girlfriends of players on both sides of the fighting.
This is where things begin to get interesting. The boys are in an uproar, and relationships weaken, particularly Lissa and Randy’s. The boys begin to band together against the girls. Suddenly it’s a war of the sexes.
Amongst the fallout, the strike opens up a dialog, particularly amongst the girls. It becomes an opportunity for the girls to get closer and to talk to each other about sex.  I loved that the girlfriends – all very different from one another, had a chance to air out individual experiences and hear from the rest of the group. Things like what the “normal” level of intimacy is, using sex to manipulate people, and what the line is with what they’re doing. What I particularly liked was that the realization that there is no such thing as normal. I found that the message that everyone goes through feeling inadequate just because they don’t think they conform to an idealized normal, is a similar message that was in The DUFF. The DUFF just focused on the appearance side of the message, and Shut Out focuses on experience. This is a positive message, and I think it’s great that Shut Out speaks frankly about sex and teens, but  the “lessons” about sex also lent the story a very obvious moralistic slant, and there are a lot of these lessons. Lissa talks through sexual rights and wrongs with other characters on several occasions.
I’m far from being a teen so these messages do little for me now, but I think I’d have liked to read a book like this when I was in my early teens. The only small issue I really had was about one of Lissa’s friends who has a cavalier sexual lifestyle. I didn’t think much of it until she explains it as a need to have some control in her life after her dad moving out (but doesn’t want anyone to psychoanalyze her). Maybe the message was not to judge people for their private decisions, but it didn’t The DUFF illustrate what a bad idea it is to deal with your problems this way? The contradiction bugged me.
Anyway, on to the romance in this story, which was big subplot. While Lissa and Randy’s relationship falters, her relationship with Cash Sterling becomes stronger. Not only does Cash now work at the library with Lissa, but it’s revealed that they have a little bit of a back story. Things being as they are, there are a lot more opportunities for these two to be thrown together, and of course sparks fly. It’s a bit of a love triangle, but not really. I think the story makes things very clear cut so Lissa can’t be accused of cheating. Without going into it, it becomes very obvious who the right person for her is, while at the same time not making anyone a cardboard villain without any redeeming features. I understood the qualities that drew Lissa to the guy she doesn’t end up with.
Lissa’s role as the leader also gives the story an opportunity to touch on sex as a weapon. Lissa begins to get very caught up in the “war” and goes a little overboard in her “attack”, so there’s a scene that covers teasing and when the term is used unfairly and when the term really applies. Excellent scene, although the response of the guy involved felt a little unreal for a teen-aged guy, it was great to see how mixed up and emotionally invested the whole thing is making Lissa. I really liked how Lissa’s progression from going too far to figuring out the right thing to do went, although I did feel like the final smoothing over of misunderstandings between Lissa and her chosen guy was missing something, which was an apology from Lissa for how she acted.  I didn’t see that and it left me with a nagging feeling when I got to the end.
Overall: Like The DUFF, Shut Out is a very real, very readable young adult story that doesn’t shy away from the topic of sex and teens. While I think that this is a book that has a lot of great messages, it’s more obvious than The DUFF as a Topic Book. I sometimes I felt like it tries to cover too much in what it tackles: I’d have preferred that it stuck to one or two important points and left the rest for some other story. But even with its agenda, Shut Out is still an engaging story. Lissa was an easy-to-relate-to narrator, the story was well-written, and the romance was a sweet one. I didn’t love this one like I loved The DUFF, but I liked it.
Shut Out comes out in September.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
It’s a little early yet.

Forget You by Jennifer Echols

Forget You
Jennifer Echols

This is one of the books in that slew of Jennifer Echols books I bought, which I managed to read on the plane ride to Denmark last month.

The Premise: Zoey is going through a tough time. Her parents have split up because of her father’s infidelity (he got the twenty-four year-old HR manager of his water park pregnant), and her mom cannot cope with it. When her mother has a nervous breakdown, Zoey’s life is completely upended. Now she has to live with her father and she’s terrified that her friends will find out about her mom.

Then Zoey has a car accident. All she has is a vague recollection of Doug Fox, pulling her out of the wreck, but not much else. Now her football player boyfriend Brandon is acting weird and Doug Fox, the one person in her class who hates her, is acting like something happened between them. Zoey knows she was supposed to go parking with Brandon that night, but she can’t remember a thing.  With little she can control, Zoey pretends that everything is okay while secretly trying to piece together exactly what happened the night of her crash.

Excerpt of Chapter 1 of Forget You

My Thoughts: This is a book where it’s pretty clear from the get go that while Zoey is a good kid, the strain of dealing with her parent’s fighting and her mother’s depression is something she’s having a very hard time dealing with. The story opens up with a prelude: Zoey driving home after finding out at her father’s water park that he got an employee pregnant. Since Zoey helped get most of her swim team get jobs there, they all know too. Unable to talk to anyone about what’s going on, she does something rash, but this time there are no dire consequences. But her rashness here proves to be the beginning of a pattern for Zoey – one in which her her hidden turmoil makes itself known in self-destructive ways.

Fast forward to the present and Zoey gets hit with the blow of her depressed mother’s hospitalization. Zoey has to move in with her furious dad, who wants her to keep her mouth shut about what is going on. The only people outside their family who know are Officer Fox and his younger brother, Doug. Zoey is appalled about this, since Doug’s given Zoey nothing but a hard time ever since his stint in juvie. His dislike doesn’t improve after she got everyone in the swim team a job at the water park except for him.  Rather that confiding in any of her friends, and studiously avoiding Doug, Zoey starts a relationship with uncomplicated jock Brandon. But within a week she’s in an accident, wondering why Brandon is acting strange and guilty, and why Doug is suddenly soft-eyed around her. Zoey can’t remember the night of her accident and she’s afraid to admit she can’t, so she pretends, again, that everything is fine, while secretly scrambling to figure it out.

I really liked Doug’s character in Forget You, because he’s essentially this guy who really tries to looks out for Zoey and has her back even when she doesn’t want it. You have to give the boy points for being pretty much the only person, including her missing-in-action parents and her clueless friends, who seems to spend any time worrying about Zoey. As together as Zoey usually is, no one really knows she needs help except Doug. Now, Zoey doesn’t exactly welcome his interest, mostly because she can’t really remember what happened the night of her accident and doesn’t know why Doug suddenly cares. I’ve read reviews where readers don’t like how Zoey treats Doug, but I found her reactions to him believable. Yes, she hurts him, but with all that she’s dealing with, and with her past history with him, she has reasons to be mistrustful and generally unhappy. She also thinks that she is with Brandon. I liked how their relationship progressed throughout the book despite it being rather rocky.

I feel like Forget You has the same engrossing writing that is in Going Too Far, and there’s a similar intense relationship, but while I thought it was very good, it didn’t blow me away the way Going Too Far did. It’s not that I didn’t like Doug and Zoey as much as I liked John and Meg. I did. I think the problem that kept the book from giving me the same reading high was that the story hinged on believing that Zoey would keep the fact that she can’t remember the night of her accident a secret. I had a problem with holding my disbelief at bay when it seemed like life would have been so much easier for her if she admitted she couldn’t remember, and basically the whole premise falls apart without this. That’s the only fly in the ointment for me. Otherwise I felt that Doug and Zoey were complex, layered individuals, and I liked them as a couple. I particularly liked Doug’s Being There For Zoey persona. Although he did sometimes feel unreal, his crappy relationship with his father, and his missteps with Zoey stopped him from being perfect.

Side note: I also liked that Doug was half-Japanese, although his green eyes gave me serious pause.

Overall: Very good. This book portrays the intense connection of young love and the strain of being a teen going through troubled times very well. The writing is engaging and it’s easy to compulsively flip the pages until you are finished. However, it does have it’s flaws. My biggest one was suspension of disbelief at the idea of a girl hiding the fact that she can’t remember the night leading up to her car crash, which kind of makes the whole premise, and everything after that, unravel. Readers may also have issues with Zoey’s treatment of Doug and her methods of escaping her situation. Your mileage may vary.

Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
The Compulsive Reader – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive
Giraffe Days – positive
Pirate Penguin’s Reads (mini review w/ Going Too Far) – 4 stars (out of 5)
La Femme Readers – 5 flowers (out of 5)
Steph Su Reads – 2.5 out of 5
Book Fare Delights – 3 out of 5
Ramblings of a Teenage Bookworm – 5 (out of 5)
Angieville – “great setup that fell flat”
See Michelle Read – positive
Pop Culture Junkie – 4.5 out of 5
Gossamer Obsessions – B
Lurv a La Mode – 4 scoops (out of 5)
Ticket to Anywhere – positive

The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen

The Sugar Queen
Sarah Addison Allen

[Yup, quiet yet again, and I fear end of June is the light at the end of the tunnel, but I’m trying to break the sad hiatus over here ]

I remember seeing positive reviews of Sarah Addison Allen’s books, but what kept me away was knowing that they had a bit of magical realism in them. This is my confession – high school has ruined magical realism for me. It made me hate magical realism. I have avoided it for a very long time since, but because the cruise library had a very small section, The Sugar Queen was the only book I was remotely interested in, so I picked it up on a whim. It was fortunate that limited choices led me to this one, because I ended up really liking it despite my prejudice.

The Premise: Josey Cirrini is trying to resign herself to a life of obedience to her mother Margaret. They are one of the richest families in Bald Slope, North Carolina, thanks to the late Marco Cirrini, who made his fortune in turning a nowhere town into a popular ski destination. Josey spends her days trying to make her mother happy, while secretly hoarding a cache of candy, romance novels and travel magazines in her closet. Then one night, Josey discovers local waitress Della Lee Baker hiding in her closet too, and Della refuses to leave without fixing up Josey’s life. Soon Josey finds herself befriending cafe owner Chloe Finley, who has problems of her own – she just kicked out her boyfriend Jake Yardley after discovering that he cheated on her. Slowly but surely Josey and Chloe’s lives intersect and change, causing a ripple effect on those around them.

Read an excerpt of Chapter 1 of The Sugar Queen here

My Thoughts: It’s hard to come up with a premise for this book that doesn’t sound like it has some very plot points that go off in seemingly non-related tangents. This story begins without any preamble and drops us into an odd situation – Josey finding Della Lee hiding in her closet. If you were to make any assumptions of where this is going you’d likely be wrong, but the unpredictability of the narrative is part of the charm of this novel, along with it’s infusion of odd magics.

Let’s start with Josey, because the story begins with her. Her life is regimented by her mother’s schedule and not much else. She’s constantly told what colors to wear (not red!), what to do and how much trouble she was as a child. It’s a dreary existence, despite it’s well-to-do trappings, and she could be a meek, pitiful daughter because of it, but Josey has resilience. She has her pocket of escapes and happiness – her candy and reads, her love of winter, and her secret crush on mailman Adam. Then Della Lee’s interference pushes Josey out of her rut. She tells Josey to wear a bit of makeup and that she does look good in red, that she should leave Bald Slope and see the places she dreams about, and she nags Josey to go to the courthouse to buy a grilled cheese sandwich. This leads Josey to cafe owner and excellent sandwich-maker, Chloe. It’s a hard time for Chloe too, because she just kicked out her boyfriend, but she’s still happy to befriend Josey. In fact, their friendship seems to come as easily as breathing, and it’s just the thing for both of them.

The narrative flows easily, albeit in a route that’s difficult to foretell. We spend some time with Chloe, discovering the back story of her current problems, and even spend some time with Margaret, Josey’s mother and discover what she’s hidden behind the aging beauty’s strict adherence to propriety. The women are the central characters here, but we also spend a few moments peeking into the minds of their respective paramours, Jake and Adam, both whom are caught by surprise from the women they took for granted.

“Why hadn’t he seen it before? Three years. Why hadn’ he known she was in love with him? “Are you sure you don’t want to keep this scarf?” he called after her.
“No, you don’t want to keep it? Or no, you’re not sure?”
She looked over her shoulder at him and smiled slightly. His breath caught.
He felt a strange stirring, something he hadn’t felt in a very long time. It felt a little like when a limb falls asleep but then slowly surely, there’s a tingling, an almost uncomfortable sensation… of waking up.

Throughout it all, wondrous things happen. Della Lee is part of this magic, like the way books suddenly appear when Chloe needs them, the way water boils when Jake and Chloe get close, the way Josey came feel that Adam is nearing her house. It’s a rather quirky and charming species of magical realism; not the kind I’m used to, which is a good thing, and this charm permeates the rest of the book.

Overall: I liked it, and maybe I’m a bit surprised I did but it charmed away my misgivings about reading a book with magic realism in it. I find it hard to describe – simple, yet clever, slice-of-life, yet magical, twisty, yet genuine. I found it landed on the feel-good side, so I think I’ll be returning to Sarah Addison Allen when I’m looking for a nice read that will leave me with a small smile on my face.

Buy:  Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository

Other reviews:
Angieville – positive
Stephanie’s Written Word – positive
Good Books and Good Wine – positive
Books and Other Thoughts – positive
Chachic’s Book Nook – positive

Other links:
Extras @ Sarah Addison Allen’s website

The Espressologist by Kristina Springer

Kristina Springer

Bookcloseouts is the cause of many impulse buys – the prices on their discount books make it very easy for me to try out a new-to-me author whose book I don’t see in my library catalog. During one of my periodic checks for Jane Austen modern-day retellings (shh, it is my weakness, don’t judge), I came across a mention of the Emma-like heroine of The Espressologist. Before you get excited – this is not a retelling of Emma, but the comparison was made because the heroine of this book, Jane, is a young matchmaker who does a great job matching others, but not herself.
The Premise: Jane Turner is a barista at Wired Joe’s, who spends her time on an idle hobby – taking notes about how a person’s favorite coffee drink matches their personality. She’s a senior in high-school with a final semester of fluffy subjects to take and a couple of college credit classes in community college, but with all that and a job, she enjoys figuring people out based on their drinks. It doesn’t take long before she realizes that her personality test can be used to hook up her friends based on their drink orders. She even matches her best friend Em, with Cam, the cute boy in her English class. When her manager, Derek gets wind of Jane’s Espressology, it becomes a marketing device for their coffee shop. But why is Jane feeling unsettled?
Read an excerpt of The Espressologist via google books
My Thoughts: At 184 easy pages, this is another short read (I’d been in the mood for short reads this last week). I had no trouble reading this book in one sitting. I would call this a light, untroubled story. It was sweet and passes the time. I wouldn’t necessarily call it shallow, but the story is light on complications. Jane is the narrator and she describes her day to day goings on, where her job and the observations are the highlight of her days. We meet Jane’s regulars, her best friend Em, her co-workers, and even a nemesis in the form of a high school mean girl who discovers where Jane works.
The behind-the-scenes look at a local coffee shop was appealing – just the description of the drinks made me want one, and it seems like the author did her research in that area. And this setting is a good one because the most interesting part of this story has to be the concept of matching personalities with drinks. There are several examples, and some of them are quite funny, including the one the book starts off with, the “Large, Non-fat, Four-shot, Caffe Latte”, which Jane calls the “Cocky sex-deprived butthead guy drink.” I had fun reading about the customers that went with each drink and Jane’s attempts at matchmaking, which she turns out to be very good at. Other than that though, there is relatively low conflict in Jane’s life. She may have to deal with snarky comments from her high school nemesis and she has trouble finding a guy for herself, but these aren’t life changers. When something does happen that knocks Jane for a loop, it’s settled quickly. I found the coffee and matchmaking concept memorable, but not really the rest of the story. I was hoping the romance in this one would be a bigger part of the story, but it ends up feeling underdeveloped.
Overall: I liked the concept of coffee and matchmaking, and that part of the story enlivened the plot, but outside of that concept, The Espressologist isn’t very meaty.  I still found it a fun little book, but a passing diversion more than anything else.
Buy: Amazon | Powell’s | The Book Depository
Other reviews:
The Hiding Spot – C+
Amaterasu Reads – Shining. 4 (out of 5)