Review: Extraordinary Means

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Title: Extraordinary Means

Author: Robyn Schneider

Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books

Publication date: May 26, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I picked this book up purely because the cover font and color scheme was gorgeous. I am a shallow person when it comes to book covers catching my eye. The fact that this was somewhat alternate-universe and slightly speculative, along with being a YA romantic dark comedy of sorts was secondary. But I’m glad that’s what it ended up being about!

As always, a brief summary from the author’s website:

At seventeen, overachieving Lane finds himself at Latham House, a sanatorium for teens suffering from an incurable strain of tuberculosis. Part hospital and part boarding school, Latham is a place of endless rules and confusing rituals, where it’s easier to fail breakfast than it is to flunk French.

There, Lane encounters a girl he knew years ago. Instead of the shy loner he remembers, Sadie has transformed. At Latham, she is sarcastic, fearless, and utterly compelling. Her friends, a group of eccentric troublemakers, fascinate Lane, who has never stepped out of bounds his whole life. And as he gradually becomes one of them, Sadie shows him their secrets: how to steal internet, how to sneak into town, and how to disable the med sensors they must wear at all times.

But there are consequences to having secrets, particularly at Latham House. And as Lane and Sadie begin to fall in love and their group begins to fall sicker, their insular world threatens to come crashing down. Told in alternating points of view, Extraordinary Means is a darkly funny story about doomed friendships, first love, and the rare miracle of second chances.

At Latham, there’s some of the camaraderie and shenanigans you’d expect from a typical teen summer camp or boarding school, but it’s constantly in the shadow of the fact that everyone will either a) get well and go home, leaving their friends forever or b) die. So, you know, not really a win-win situation. And it’s an unusual situation to describe. I’ve read some reviewers describe Extraordinary Means as somewhat like Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. While the latter is definitely different because it’s about a boarding school where the students are being raised in order to harvest their organs, I agree that there’s still a similarity. The students are all living on borrowed time, and they know that whatever relationships they build will inevitably fall apart, and not by choice.

But at the same time, this book is special because of it’s strong comedic aspect. When the blurb says that the book is “darkly funny,” it’s not kidding. I laughed out loud almost constantly throughout, from Lane and Sadie’s narration more than from anything that happened in the narrative plot-wise. But then I’d stop and be like, “Um, these kids have terminal diseases. Some of these things that are cracking me up are actually really morbid. Should I really be laughing so hard?” The answer I came to was, yes. It’s okay to laugh. Because if you take away the humor, you’re taking away any chance they have at living somewhat normal lives. And the characters make it clear that some of the humor is theirs, but some of it is also a coping mechanism.

Some of the actions of the characters are definitely… nonsensical. For example, in one scene, Lane and Sadie sneak out to a county carnival. Obviously they want to live their lives, but also, to risk spreading their disease? I don’t think anyone would really be cruel enough to do this. Also, there’s a constant black market of alcohol and other banned items, and the teens end up partying like there’s no tomorrow. Kind of stupid, especially when you’re dying of a lung disease. I don’t know. Some parts just didn’t make sense to me.

But overall, while there were some lapses in logical judgment and while I saw almost every “plot twist” and dramatic event that happened (there’s not much in this book that will surprise you, probably), I enjoyed it. Like I said before, it’s warped sense of comedy was weirdly engaging. I found almost all of the main characters to be relatable in some way, and in the end, I was satisfied with my reading experience. So if you like comedies, romances, or books about dying teens (which seem to be more and more common these days…), you may want to give this one a try.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

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Review: The Game of Love and Death

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Title: The Game of Love and Death

Author: Martha Brockenbrough

Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books

Publication date: April 28, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I am a sucker for historical fiction, especially historical YA. I was immediately intrigued by the premise – a pair of lovers, chosen by Love and Death, respectively, and left to play out the game.

But before I get to far – a brief summary from the author’s website:

Antony and Cleopatra. Helen of Troy and Paris. Romeo and Juliet. And now… Henry and Flora.

For centuries Love and Death have chosen their players. They have set the rules, rolled the dice, and kept close, ready to influence, angling for supremacy. And Death has always won. Always.

Could there ever be one time, one place, one pair whose love would truly tip the balance?

Meet Flora Saudade, an African-American girl who dreams of becoming the next Amelia Earhart by day and sings in the smoky jazz clubs of Seattle by night. Meet Henry Bishop, born a few blocks and a million worlds away, a white boy with his future assured — a wealthy adoptive family in the midst of the Great Depression, a college scholarship, and all the opportunities in the world seemingly available to him.

The players have been chosen. The dice have been rolled. But when human beings make moves of their own, what happens next is anyone’s guess.

Alright, so first of all, while the protagonists are young adults, I think that people of all ages would love this book. Adults, children, everyone in between. Everyone can find an emotional connection to these characters and this story.

This book took me places that I did not expect in the slightest. First of all, the personifications of Love and Death were some of the most intriguing characterizations I’ve ever read. I expected Love to be a woman and Death to be a man – but nope, it was the other way around. Shame on me for imposing gender roles on abstract concepts. But more than that, I was surprised that they actually played fairly vital roles in the story. They entangle themselves with Henry and Fiona’s struggle in more ways than one, keeping a close eye on their living game pieces. I loved it.

Both main characters also have significant strengths and flaws. Fiona is headstrong and determined, but too dedicated to her work and her dreams of becoming a pilot to let anyone get close to her. Henry, on the other hand, has almost no goals, and no plan – ever – but his passionate heart and genuine kindness make up for that. The one thing they share is their love of music. Together, they’re a stunning pair to watch, just because their interactions are so complex. And that’s even before you add on the issues regarding their interracial relationship during the American depression.

At the beginning of the novel, you are forced to realize that there are only two ways the game can end. This makes the reading experience painful, but the journey incredibly worthwhile in the end. I can’t say enough good things about this story. The Game of Love and Death is one that I won’t forget. If you are a human being, I recommend this book to you.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Red Queen

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Title: Red Queen

Author: Victoria Aveyard

Publisher: Harper Teen

Publication date: February 10, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

The gorgeous cover of Red Queen immediately caught my eye as soon as it came out (it’s hard to tell in the photo, but in real life it’s silver and very attractive to someone who is drawn to anything shiny). This being Victoria Aveyard’s debut, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I dove right in, especially since I hadn’t read any real fantasy in a while.

A quick summary from Victoria Aveyard’s website:

Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood—those with red and those with silver. Mare and her family are lowly Reds, destined to serve the Silver elite whose supernatural abilities make them nearly gods. Mare steals what she can to help her family survive, but when her best friend is conscripted into the army she gambles everything to win his freedom. A twist of fate leads her to the royal palace itself, where, in front of the king and all his nobles, she discovers a power of her own—an ability she didn’t know she had. Except … her blood is Red.

To hide this impossibility, the king forces her into the role of a lost Silver princess and betroths her to one of his own sons. As Mare is drawn further into the Silver world, she risks her new position to aid the Scarlet Guard—the leaders of a Red rebellion. Her actions put into motion a deadly and violent dance, pitting prince against prince—and Mare against her own heart.

From debut author Victoria Aveyard comes a lush, vivid fantasy series where loyalty and desire can tear you apart and the only certainty is betrayal.

I was hooked within the first few pages of this book. The clear societal differences between the Reds and the Silvers screams social commentary, and I wasn’t disappointed when this issue nicely progressed throughout the novel. It’s amazing how a story set in another world with a whole new set of rules and physical realities can still echo our own society so strongly. Anyway – I though Aveyard made a great point with some of the issues she brought up, framed within the confines of the book’s social classes.

The mystery of the story – how did Mare get her power if she’s not a Silver? – definitely compelled me to keep reading, but even more engaging than that were the courtly interactions and intrigue that Mare got herself whipped up into. Some elements reminded me of Kiera Cass’ The Selection series, but with less emphasis on the beauty pageant/reality television elements and more on the betrayal and political twisting and turning. So, a more interesting and meaty take on it, in other words.

I was really hoping that this book wouldn’t end up having a love triangle, but I was sadly mistaken. Still, the way that it played out didn’t really bother me in the end, because Mare really only loves one character at a time, and the way the young men feel for her is hard to pin down, which is part of the fun.

Red Queen is a meaningful read that’s packed with action, so if you like hidden social commentary and also magical powers and fantasy worlds, definitely give this one a read before the sequel comes out. I’ll be waiting with bated breath for the next installment.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: No Parking at the End Times

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Title: No Parking at the End Times

Author: Bryan Bliss

Publisher: Greenwillow Books

Publication date: February 24, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s twitter

Picked this one up because two books on the recent releases shelf at Barnes and Noble had vans on the covers, so clearly it was a sign from the universe that I was meant to read both van books in one day. My brain doesn’t make sense sometimes, but I usually just go with it. (I’ll post my review of the other van-cover-book later this week!)

A summary from the HarperCollins website, of which Greenwillow is an imprint:

Abigail’s parents believed the world was going to end. And—of course—it didn’t. But they’ve lost everything anyway. And she must decide: does she still believe in them? Or is it time to believe in herself? Fans of Sara Zarr, David Levithan, and Rainbow Rowell will connect with this moving debut.

Abigail’s parents never should have made that first donation to that end-of-times preacher. Or the next, or the next. They shouldn’t have sold their house. Or packed Abigail and her twin brother, Aaron, into their old van to drive across the country to San Francisco, to be there for the “end of the world.” Because now they’re living in their van. And Aaron is full of anger, disappearing to who-knows-where every night. Their family is falling apart. All Abigail wants is to hold them together, to get them back to the place where things were right.

But maybe it’s too big a task for one teenage girl. Bryan Bliss’s thoughtful debut novel is about losing everything—and about what you will do for the people you love.

First of all, on a slightly unrelated note, name-dropping in book blurbs is actually my least favorite thing on this planet. Rainbow Rowell wrote a “moving” book, and if you liked that one, you’ll also like this one! No. Incorrect. Wrong. Just… stop.

Anyway. Continuing on.

Some things about this book were great – like the focus on family dynamics and the close relationship between Abigail and her brother as the emotional center of the novel. I don’t think the importance of familial love gets enough attention in YA literature. And the whole people-get-taken-by-basically-a-religious-cult-leader thing is becoming more prevalent in contemporary media lately, as seen in Vivian Apple at the End of the World (my review of which is here) and the new comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” on Netflix (which I absolutely loved). I don’t know what it says about our society that religious cults are becoming more of a talked-about issue, but… I do think the topic is intriguing.

But however interesting the premise, and however compelling the familial relationship between parents-children and sister-brother, I closed the book with a vague feeling of disappointment. First of all, nothing was really resolved by the end of the novel. It wasn’t even resolved in a this-isn’t-resolved way. It just kind of fake-happy-ended me. Happy endings don’t just happen like that, in a page and a half, with no reason and no hint as to the troubles that they’ll have to face in the future as a result of that ending.

Also, for a book that focuses on the hardships of this family after they become basically homeless and living in their van, it kind of… romanticizes? The idea of homelessness? Like, they sleep in the van, but the kids sneak out to do whatever, whenever they want. They hit up all the charity food lines, collect donations from churches, etc, and while Abigail does talk about how hard it is to eat spaghetti every day, and brush her teeth without a real sink, I don’t think the book hit the gritty realities I was hoping it would. I was left distinctly unsatisfied.

I much enjoyed the other van-cover-book, to be honest. Review of that one is forthcoming. But for No Parking at the End Times? Ehhhh.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Trigger Warning

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Title: Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Author: Neil Gaiman

Publisher: William Morrow & Company

Publication date: February 3, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I love Neil Gaiman. Ever since I read Coraline as a kid (and had subsequent nightmares for weeks), I’ve been in love with his books. I re-read Neverwhere on the London Underground; I hurriedly consumed The Ocean at the End of the Lane in line at his book signing in Portland; I spent all last summer tracking down each issue of The Sandman. So as you can imagine, I was PUMPED about this new collection of short stories.

Before my reviews – a quick summary from Goodreads:

Multiple award winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things–which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog,” written exclusively for this volume…

A sophisticated writer whose creative genius is unparalleled, Gaiman entrances with his literary alchemy, transporting us deep into the realm of imagination, where the fantastical becomes real and the everyday incandescent. Full of wonder and terror, surprises and amusements,Trigger Warning is a treasury of delights that engage the mind, stir the heart, and shake the soul from one of the most unique and popular literary artists of our day.

It’s hard to judge a collection of stories as a whole, because I loved some and was completely uninterested by others. So like I’ve done for other short story compilations, here’s a brief review of each story separately. It’s a little unconventional, but the best way to do it, I think. I won’t review the poems, but here are my thoughts on the nineteen short stories, in order from least favorite to favorite (so if you just want to hear about the good ones, scroll down or pay attention just to the bolded titles):

19. “Black Dog” – I feel like I would have appreciated this if I’d read American Gods, which has been on my to-read list for years. Since I wasn’t familiar with the characters, I skipped this story as a result, so I can’t comment.

18. “An Invocation of Incuriosity” – I skimmed this one. It was uninteresting to me.

17. “Feminine Endings” – I didn’t get this one. I probably just need to re-read.

16. “The Case of Death and Honey” – Based on why Sherlock Holmes was so obsessed with beekeeping in his retirement. I liked the premise, but the execution (the style, mostly) was lacking for me.

15. “Jerusalem” – Eh. Okay. Not particularly scary or interesting, though slightly amusing.

14. “Adventure Story” – Funny but relatively unremarkable.

13. “A Lunar Labyrinth” – Cool mythology, creepy setting, nice.

12. “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale” – A dark, modern spin on a fairy-tale-like situation. I enjoyed it well enough.

11. “The Return of the Thin White Duke” – Another great fairytale.

10. “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” – A sweet (and creepy) tribute to Ray Bradbury – and also very appropriately reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451.

9. “Orange (Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire” – This one is fun because you get only the interviewee’s answers, but not the questions, and have to piece together what happened yourself. A great (and successful) experiment in style.

8. “A Calendar of Tales” – Short stories WITHIN a short story – one for each month. All of them were great, and I’ll be re-reading this mini-collection in the future.

7. “Nothing O’Clock” – Essentially, a mini, written Doctor Who episode, set in the Eleventh Doctor & Amy’s era. Gaiman has written for the show before, and this was just as great as any full-length, produced episode.

6. “‘And Weep, Like Alexander'” – Perfectly over-the-top in its execution. A story about a man who can un-invent things – satirical and hilarious.

5. “Down to a Sunless Sea” – YES. SO GOOD. Short and anti-sweet.

4. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” – A story twisted up in murder and mystery and mythology. This one is longer but it felt like it passed in the blink of an eye.

3. “The Thing About Cassandra” – Cute but also creepy, in a perfect balance. The twist ending actually blew my mind and made me question my own existence.

2. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” – Supremely horrifying, and definitely a story you won’t want to read when you’re home alone.

And my #1: “The Sleeper and the Spindle” – Combine a kick-ass Snow White with an inverted Sleeping Beauty and you get this story. Absolutely perfect in every aspect. This should be the bedtime story for all children forever.

So while about six of the stories were uninteresting or “eh,” I absolutely fell in love with the other half of my list. The great thing about short story collections is that you don’t HAVE to read them all – you have the power to decide which deserve your attention and which you’ll leave for later (or never). For example, I bolded my must-reads. If you like creepy, if you like funny, if you like mind-blowing, or if you like Neil Gaiman, I’d recommend picking up Trigger Warning.

4 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)

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Title: All Fall Down (Embassy Row #1)

Author: Ally Carter

Publisher: Scholastic Press

Publication date: January 20, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I bought this book right after it came out because of some great reviews from friends – but I only just got around to reading it! Once I started it, I finished in less than a day, because it was completely not what I expected but was instead way better.

First, a quick synopsis from Ally Carter’s website:

Grace Blakely is absolutely certain of three things:

1. She is not crazy.
2. Her mother was murdered.
3. Someday she is going to find the killer and make him pay.

As certain as Grace is about these facts, nobody else believes her–so there’s no one she can completely trust. Not her grandfather, a powerful ambassador. Not her new friends, who all live on Embassy Row. Not Alexei, the Russian boy next door who is keeping an eye on Grace for reasons she neither likes nor understands.

Everybody wants Grace to put on a pretty dress and a pretty smile, blocking out all her unpretty thoughts. But they can’t control Grace–no more than Grace can control what she knows or what she needs to do.

Her past has come back to hunt her . . .  and if she doesn’t stop it, Grace isn’t the only one who will get hurt. Because on Embassy Row, the countries of the world all stand like dominoes, and one wrong move can make them all fall down.

Disclaimer: I’ve never read anything else by Ally Carter, but All Fall Down absolutely blew me away. The story is set up so that Grace, the protagonist, returns to a place called “Embassy Row,” where all the foreign embassies in the country of Valencia sit side-by-side and tensions between neighbors are – as you may imagine – high. The book started out slowly as Carter unravels who Grace is (army brat, granddaughter of the American ambassador, PTSD sufferer after she witnessed her mother’s murder at the age of thirteen) and how Embassy Row is set up, but once it gets into the action, it never slows down again. Although all of her relatives and friends keep telling her that her mother’s death in her bookstore fire was an accident, Grace is adamant that a man with a scarred face shot her mother in front of her. When she sees the same man in Valencia – as a close companion to the prime minister, no less – she sets off on a mission to get revenge and ensure that no one else faces the same fate as her mother.

I absolutely loved all of the characterization. Grace is a girl who tries so hard to be independent and has a difficult time realizing when she needs to rely on her friends for support. Likewise, her newfound friends on Embassy Row (and some old friends as well) all have detailed personalities that lack any visible stereotyping. Plus, there’s hints of romance with a few different characters but romance definitely isn’t the #1 priority in the novel – political intrigue and character development are.

I found myself fist-pumping and cheering aloud for the characters more than once, which is probably embarrassing. But I couldn’t believe how into the novel I got, and the twist ending completely threw me for a loop in the end. Yet while there is a definite resolution to one major mystery in the book, the ending is a clear cliffhanger for a continuation of the series, which I’m really looking forward to.

The one thing that bothered me was that, looking back, I can see that Grace wasn’t asking herself the kinds of questions that she really needed to be asking (you’ll understand if you read the book). So in that way, I think that her POV as the narrator was slightly unreliable in retrospect, which made me feel just a teeny, tiny bit cheated. That being said, I only came to that conclusion afterwards – while reading, I had no complaints, and I also (reluctantly) see why that particular avenue was necessary in order to make the book work.

But overall, if you like thrillers, mysteries, female characters that are strong as hell, or books that will make you physically shout while reading them, you should add All Fall Down to your future reading list. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think in the comments below!

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: The Last Time We Say Goodbye

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Title: The Last Time We Say Goodbye

Author: Cynthia Hand

Publisher: Harper Teen

Publication Date: February 10, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I’m going to be honest – I picked this book to read at the Starbucks at Barnes and Noble and finished it in one sitting, and I chose it solely because the cover has this really nice – I don’t know how to describe it, but almost – matte? This really nice-feeling matte. Whatever. It turned out to be a great choice and one of the most striking books I’ve read recently.

A brief summary from the author’s website:

There’s death all around us. We just don’t pay attention. Until we do.

The last time Lex was happy, it was before. When she had a family that was whole. A boyfriend she loved. Friends who didn’t look at her like she might break down at any moment.

Now she’s just the girl whose brother killed himself. And it feels like that’s all she’ll ever be.

As Lex starts to put her life back together, she tries to block out what happened the night Tyler died. But there’s a secret she hasn’t told anyone-a text Tyler sent, that could have changed everything.

Lex’s brother is gone. But Lex is about to discover that a ghost doesn’t have to be real to keep you from moving on.

The Last Time We Say Goodbye is another book about the aftermath of loved one’s suicide. At the point that I read this book, this was the third about this topic I’d read in about the span of a week, which was concerning. Why is this such a popular topic for new YA novels? Is it because teens are dealing with this more frequently? Is it because the authors have gone through this? Why? I don’t quite know.

At any rate, the book was well-written, no doubt about it. The imagery was vivid, the dialogue was sharp, and Lex was just the sort of complicated character that I am drawn towards. She’s not particularly likable, but in this case it’s understandable. She’s put up a wall of sorts between her and the rest of the world, and for good reason.

Throughout the book, I knew Lex felt guilty about her brother’s suicide – but I just didn’t know why. That mystery catapulted my interest, especially because it’s another one of those situations where no one’s going to forgive you. You have to find the strength to do that yourself, in that instance, and watching Lex’s struggle was difficult but emotionally cathartic. Raw guilt, raw grief, raw pain – it was hard to get through, sometimes, because my heart hurt by association. But I think the unfiltered emotion is what really lets this book shine.

This isn’t exactly a feel-good novel, but it might be just what you need. I didn’t enjoy reading this book – instead, I felt privileged.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: I Was Here

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Title: I Was Here

Author: Gayle Forman

Publisher: Viking Juvenile

Publication Date: January 27, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

I’ve been excited about reading this book for weeks and weeks, ever since I saw the twitter campaign for it online. And I’ve loved Gayle Forman’s previous works, If I Stay being one of the romantic staples of YA lit ever since I read it years ago. However, this one let me down.

Before I get around to why, here’s a brief summary from Gayle Forman’s website:

When her best friend Meg drinks a bottle of industrial-strength cleaner alone in a motel room, Cody is understandably shocked and devastated.

She and Meg shared everything—so how was there no warning? But when Cody travels to Meg’s college town to pack up the belongings left behind, she discovers that there’s a lot that Meg never told her. About her old roommates, the sort of people Cody never would have met in her dead-end small town in Washington. About Ben McAllister, the boy with a guitar and a sneer, and some secrets of his own. And about an encrypted computer file that Cody can’t open—until she does, and suddenly everything Cody thought she knew about her best friend’s death gets thrown into question.

I Was Here is Gayle Forman at her finest, a taut, emotional, and ultimately redemptive story about redefining the meaning of family and finding a way to move forward even in the face of unspeakable loss.

This suicide, unlike the other suicide-focused YA books I’ve read and reviewed recently, is more a mystery than anything else. Cody tries to understand why her best friend killed herself – what exactly led to that? And (mini-spoiler, though you find this out fairly early in the book): one thing that contributed was Meg’s participation in a pro-suicide forum of sorts online. Cody, then, makes it her mission to track down the person who she believes talked Meg into killing herself online. An interesting take, and one that I didn’t anticipate (mini-spoiler over).

So the mystery aspect of the book was great, as was Cody’s realistic emotional trauma over losing her best friend. Anyone who’s lost someone close to them unexpectedly would be able to relate with a lot of what Cody goes through in the novel. Although I do have to say that if you have any sense of foreshadowing at all, you can tell almost immediately the “reveal” at the end of the novel. Authors don’t mention things for no reason, and the hints were all laid out for the reader almost obnoxiously.

But what was really annoying was the introduction of a romantic angle – I was 100% thrown off by the unrealistic, unnecessary love interest. Ben and Cody have no chemistry, and their relationship makes zero sense. I understand that Gayle Forman is a romance writer, but also I’d like to see a book where romance isn’t unnecessarily thrown into the mix just for the heck of it. Without the awkward love addition, this book would have been way better. Even if Ben and Cody were just friends, his character would have accomplished the same purpose. An appropriate tweet from my fav, @BroodingYAHero:

I am still left with a residual sense of confusion about my feelings for I Was Here. It was an interesting enough read, and I still like Forman’s writing style, but overall I think my annoyances outweighed the positive aspects of the novel, so much so that I can’t even tell what kind of reader I’d recommend this book to.

3 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: Playlist for the Dead

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Title: Playlist for the Dead

Author: Michelle Falkoff

Publisher: HarperTeen

Publication date: January 27, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s twitter

I always love the idea of books that incorporate music, because I think music is so relatable to almost every reader. So I picked up Playlist for the Dead as part of my accidental teen-suicide-extravaganza. Anyway – unfortunately, this book fell a little short, in my opinion.

A summary from the HarperCollins website:

There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, Sam’s best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you’ll understand. To figure out what happened, Sam has to rely on the playlist and his own memory. But the more he listens, the more he realizes that his memory isn’t as reliable as he thought. And it might only be by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he’ll finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Playlist for the Dead is an honest and gut-wrenching first novel about loss, rage, what it feels like to outgrow a friendship that’s always defined you—and the struggle to redefine yourself. But above all, it’s about finding hope when hope seems like the hardest thing to find.

When Sam’s best friend commits suicide, it comes as a major shock. The only thing he’s left is a playlist of songs. Each chapter title is a song on the playlist, and to make my reading experience more authentic, I listened to each song (on YouTube) as I read the chapter. It added a nice ambience to the story, though most songs were either too long or too short for the time it took to read the chapter, which was annoying but obviously an unsolvable issue (and I doubt anyone else would even care, other than me). Throughout the book, Sam investigates to try to figure out exactly what happened the night Hayden died and how to move on from there.

On a concept level, I really liked the idea of Playlist for the Dead. But the execution fell way short. Mostly because the main character in the story other than Sam was the textbook definition of a manic pixie dream girl. Such characters should have been banned from literature decades ago. Also, I feel like the conclusion of the book didn’t particularly solve anything. I just… didn’t buy into the emotion that was supposed to be happening, and I didn’t have any attachment to what was going on. If I can’t care about the characters, there’s no point in reading the book.

For creativity alone, I’ll give the book two stars. I think that there might be an audience out there for this type of novel, but there are so many other better books about suicide, especially in YA literature lately, that I remain distinctly unimpressed by this one.

2 out of 5 stars.

Tara

Review: All the Bright Places

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Title: All the Bright Places

Author: Jennifer Niven

Publisher: Knopf

Publication Date: January 6, 2015

Goodreads / Author’s website / Author’s twitter

My local bookstore has been promoting this book like CRAZY for weeks and weeks – so I finally bit the bullet and gave it a shot, only to be 100% captivated.

A quick  summary from the author’s website:

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death. Every day he thinks of ways he might die, but every day he also searches for—and manages to find—something to keep him here, and alive, and awake.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her small Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school—six stories above the ground—it’s unclear who saves whom. And when the unlikely pair teams up on a class project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, they go, as Finch says, where the road takes them: the grand, the small, the bizarre, the beautiful, the ugly, the surprising—just like life.

Soon it’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a bold, funny, live-out-loud guy, who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet forgets to count away the days and starts living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

This is a heart-wrenching, unflinching story of love shared, life lived, and two teens who find one another while standing on the edge.

All the Bright Places is about a boy and a girl who meet, try to help each other, and fall in love along the way. However – it’s not all sunshine and flowers. This book hurts – a physical, visceral hurt that doesn’t abate even when the last page has been turned.

The book shifts between Violet and Finch’s point of view, both of whom have extremely different perspectives and both of whom are suffering in their own way. This is one of the rare occurrences where I didn’t have a preference of one narrator or the other – both of their ways of telling the story are compelling. And you can tell, as you read, how each character shifts and grows in response to the other – or how, completely independent of one another, their growth is cut short.

I’ve seen a few complaints on Goodreads (I can’t help but browse other reviews sometimes, especially when I see that they’ve rated the book so much lower than I did) about Finch as a “good” character. Some people have said that Finch is manipulative, that he pushes Violet too far, that he doesn’t back down, etc. I didn’t see this as being too vicious an issue in the story. Sure, he pushes her outside her comfort zone, but sometimes you have to be pushed beyond your limits in order to break free from the rut that you’re stuck in. Plus – no character is perfect, and I don’t think that this aspect of his personality was romanticized in any way, though each to their own opinion.

All the Bright Places also takes a very real look at mental illness, which really resonated with me because I’ve been there. It’s take on mental illness is genuine, and I think this book has the ability to help readers see hope, or at least see the need to get help for their own issues – the lack of which was the most frustrating part of the story. I’ve read an almost alarming number of YA books about depression and suicide lately (though why, I don’t know – that seems to be the trend in the newest releases, I guess) and this one hit the mark in terms of really showing the realities of both depression and suicide.

(And as an added bonus, the story takes place in Indiana, and the state plays a fairly large role in the actual plot of the book, too. Hoosier pride, represent.)

In sum: I loved it, I’ll read it again, and I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t mind crying through their reading experience.

5 out of 5 stars.

Tara