Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

For Macallan and Levi, it was friends at first sight. Everyone says guys and girls can’t be just friends, but these two are. They hang out after school, share tons of inside jokes, their families are super close, and Levi even starts dating one of Macallan’s friends. They are platonic and happy that way.

Eventually they realize they’re best friends — which wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep getting in each other’s way. Guys won’t ask Macallan out because they think she’s with Levi, and Levi spends too much time joking around with Macallan, and maybe not enough time with his date. They can’t help but wonder . . . are they more than friends or are they better off without making it even more complicated?

better

My Scholastic Rep knows my reading preferences, and swore I’d LOVE this book. She sent me an advanced reading copy, and I immediately dove in to this sweet, contemporary story.  Throughout high school, I too had a very close male friend and I’m sure our families wondered if, at some point, it would turn romantic. For us, we truly were and ARE better off friends! However, it was still fun reading this fairly predictable (but cute) story about two best friends falling in love.

Every chapter switches between Levi and Macallan’s perspective.  Although they have distinct voices, readers are clued into the change with two visuals.  The first is a greyed out male/female image mirroring the front cover, and the other is a different font.  The start of each chapter begins with Levi and Macallan’s flirty banter as they look back at the progression of their relationship.  Even in the earlier chapters, it’s obvious that crush signs were there.  “If I had only one goal in life, it would be to make her laugh loudly everyday (pg.82)”.  Pretty sure that’s not a typical ‘friend’ statement.

Besides the romance, I loved the emphasis on the family. Both Levi’s and Macallan’s family are consistently involved throughout the book. As Levi and Macallan become inseperable, their welcoming, supportive, and protective families also grow tight. It was refreshing to read about teens that understand and embrace the importance of family.

Overall, I enjoyed this wholesome (no booze, sex, or swearing!), high school romance. Although it was my first Elizabeth Eulberg read, I’m sure it won’t be my last.  Look for Better Off Friends in February 2014.

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Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher

Fifteen-year-old Zoe has a secret—a dark and terrible secret that she can’t confess to anyone she knows. But then one day she hears of a criminal, Stuart Harris, locked up on death row in Texas. Like Zoe, Stuart is no stranger to secrets. Or lies. Or murder.

Full of heartache yet humour, Zoe tells her story in the only way she can—in letters to the man in prison in America. Armed with a pen, Zoe takes a deep breath, eats a jam sandwich, and begins her tale of love and betrayal.

 

ketchup clouds

A guilty conscience pushes fifteen year old Zoe to seek a pen pal that understands her situation.  In her mind, Stuart Harris (an inmate on death row), is the perfect choice because they are both responsible for the death of a loved one.  The entire story is told in letter form, but since ‘Zoe’ uses a fake name and address, we never see Stuart’s replies.  One has to wonder if he even received the letters, and if so, what his response would be.  We watch as Zoe starts off formally, addressing him with ‘Dear Mr. S. Harris’, and as the letter progresses, ‘Hey there, Stu’.  She writes these letters from a shed where her only company is a lone spider.

The author did a brilliant job at keeping the reader guessing Zoe’s terrible secret.  There are clues throughout; hinting at the tragic death of one of the two brothers Zoe has feelings for.  It’s a sad ending for all involved.

My biggest critique is the title. Although Ketchup Clouds is a catchy title, I’m not sure what it has to do with the story (besides Zoe’s sister drawing clouds in ketchup).  Maybe there was some deeper meaning that I missed?  Thoughts?

Overall, Ketchup Clouds is a sad story about love, family, murder and secrets.  Due to some explicit sexual content, I would recommend this book to older YA readers.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

fangirl

Fangirl follows twins Cather & Wren, as they explore college, the changing nature of relationships, and first love. What differentiates this book from others is the focus on fan fiction.  Cath is obsessed with the fantasy series, “Simon Snow”, and spends most of her time thinking and writing about characters Simon and Baz. However, issues arise when extrovert Wren begins to drift away from fandom to experience all that college life has to offer.

The book opens with a Wikipedia-like entry about the Simon Snow series. Immediately, it is evident that Simon Snow is a reflection of Harry Potter.  Every chapter begin with an excerpt of Gemma T. Leslie’s “Simon Snow”  or a fanfixx.net entry by Magicath. While I could manage snippets of Simon Snow, I completely skipped over the long passages when Cath begins reading it to Levi. I didn’t care to read a story within a story and preferred to read about Cath’s socially awkward life rather than Simon Snow’s fictional characters.

Although Cath’s social anxiety hindered her ability to meet people, she did fall for her roommate’s ex-boyfriend and happy go lucky, Levi.  In all honesty, I found is surprising that Levi would pursue the standoffish, immature and inexperienced Cath.  As their relationship slowly progresses, the intimate scenes are always sweet, not explicit.  Levi is just one of the distinctive characters that play a role in this book. The rest of the supporting cast of characters are well written, and relatable in their own way.  The family dynamics are interesting and mental health issues are evident.

Overall, I thought Fangirl was refreshing for new adult fans.  If you’re looking for a dark story with a tragic bad boy love interest, look elsewhere.  I had a smile on my face reading this book, especially when I picked up on the pop culture references (including Twilight!).  Even if you aren’t a fanfiction enthusiast, I think you will still enjoy this coming of age college tale.

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

Former piano prodigy Nastya Kashnikov wants two things: to get through high school without anyone learning about her past and to make the boy who took everything from her—her identity, her spirit, her will to live—pay.

Josh Bennett’s story is no secret: every person he loves has been taken from his life until, at seventeen years old, there is no one left. Now all he wants is be left alone and people allow it because when your name is synonymous with death, everyone tends to give you your space.

Everyone except Nastya, the mysterious new girl at school who starts showing up and won’t go away until she’s insinuated herself into every aspect of his life. But the more he gets to know her, the more of an enigma she becomes. As their relationship intensifies and the unanswered questions begin to pile up, he starts to wonder if he will ever learn the secrets she’s been hiding—or if he even wants to.

sea

Writing this review is difficult. I know tons of individuals that raved about this book (including the majority of the Goodreads community), but I found it just okay. Yes, the writing is beautiful and there are tons of memorable lines, but the lack of plot made the storyline move incredible slow at times. The book is character driven, and switches point of view between damaged high schoolers ‘Nastya’ and Josh. The mysterious reason for Nastya’s silence is hinted at and slowly revealed as the book progresses.

The romance is heavily focused on, and is mostly adorable. I thought it was cute that she fell for an equally damaged individual with his own ‘human force field’. Although they both survive tragedies, they are able to find healing and safety in each other. Their love and trust builds slowly and it felt authentic. Pet nicknames in general are terrible, but Josh’s overuse of calling Nastya ‘Sunshine’ got beyond irritating.

Speaking of names, the origin and meaning of names played a large role in the book. It’s interesting (and so not a coincidence) that every single name meaning matched their personality (example- Sarah being a princess, Josh being a savior, etc.)  While I don’t think a given name predicts your personality, I did a quick search of the meaning behind my name and it is weirdly accurate.

Overall, this is a very angst filled book of two broken individuals finding each other and starting over. Because of the profanity, and mature content, it reads like other darker ‘new adult’ books and so I would recommend this title to older teen readers.

 

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough.

Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.

Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby?

Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she’s going?

moon

Meh. I know the many Sarah Dessen fans will disagree with me, but I found The Moon and More to be just an okay read.  I much preferred What Happened to Goodbye.

Don’t expect much drama, action or cliffhangers in this book. Rather it consists mostly of mundane details of a teenager about to embark on college. Summer jobs, romantic and family relationships, and common worries about growing up are all very much explored. In that aspect, teens will be able to relate to Emaline. I on the other hand, was a little bored.

The best feature of the book was the setting of Colby. Emaline lives in the beach town of Colby that is flooded by tourists every summer. It is perfectly described and easy to image.  The subplot of the local Colby artist was an interesting element and coming from a small town, I could understand the protectiveness and cautiousness of letting ‘outsiders’ in.

 

Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

Astrid Jones desperately wants to confide in someone, but her mother’s pushiness and her father’s lack of interest tell her they’re the last people she can trust. Instead, Astrid spends hours lying on the backyard picnic table watching airplanes fly overhead. She doesn’t know the passengers inside, but they’re the only people who won’t judge her when she asks them her most personal questions . . . like what it means that she’s falling in love with a girl.

As her secret relationship becomes more intense and her friends demand answers, Astrid has nowhere left to turn. She can’t share the truth with anyone except the people at thirty thousand feet, and they don’t even know she’s there. But little does Astrid know just how much even the tiniest connection will affect these strangers’ lives–and her own–for the better.

ask

The title of the book stems from Astrid’s practice of expressing herself and sending love to the passengers of overhead planes.  In turn, passengers share their love and lives with the readers. Their stories are interspersed between Astrid’s narration. Astrid herself has some really interesting family dynamics. Astrid’s pot-smoking father, her self-involved, workaholic mother, and insecure younger sister, all play a huge role in the telling of this story.  Throughout the book, Astrid’s connection with Socrates and his philosophical beliefs was a unique element. She begins to imagine him everywhere and nicknames him ‘Frank S’.  She admires him because he ‘rejected all the boxes’ and questioned everything.

However, I question why bisexuality was not further explored.  Astrid questions her sexuality, and when her parents confront her, they urge her to choose a gay or straight box. She comes to realize that we cannot force tidy labels on complex things like sexuality. Sexuality cannot always be simplified. However, in the end, she very loudly comes out as a lesbian.  Why couldn’t she be bisexual? Why did she have to choose?

Overall, I think Ask the Passengers is realistic of a girl struggling with her own sexual identity and the difficulty of coming out to her family, friends, and small town. I have several friends that went through similar situations, and ones that continue to struggle with their sexual identity. Despite the one issue, I think this book would provide comfort to those on a path of self-discovery.

If I Stay by Gayle Forman (If I Stay #1)

In a single moment, everything changes. Seventeen-year-old Mia has no memory of the accident; she can only recall riding along the snow-wet Oregon road with her family. Then, in a blink, she finds herself watching as her own damaged body is taken from the wreck…

A sophisticated, layered, and heart-achingly beautiful story about the power of family and friends, the choices we all make, and the ultimate choice Mia commands.

if i stay

Seven years ago, I lost a friend to injuries sustained in a car accident. She too, was in a coma and fought her hardest to stay with us. Ultimately, she lost the battle two weeks later. Clearly, this was an emotional read for me.

As the sole survivor in a car accident that killed her parents and brother, Mia now lies in a coma.  In first person narrative, she chronicles her life with retellings of important events  (first recital, meeting her boyfriend, etc.).  She continuously switches between past and present in deciding whether to live or die. In the present, she exists as an invisible observer; a spirit that watches over her body and observes the impact of the accident on her family and friends. There is an extremely heartbreaking scene with Mia and her grandpa where he recognizes her pain and tells her that he understands why it would be okay if she chose to pass on.  I couldn’t imagine being in Mia’s situation and as a reader, I wasn’t sure what her final decision would be.  You have to read the book yourself to find out!

Music has an overwhelming influence on Mia’s life and plays an integral part of the story. Music is the constant thread that ties aspects of Mia’s life together.  Although I don’t play an instrument seriously (I pick up my guitar every now and again), it was interesting to hear how she perceived situations with her musical lens, especially the very intimate scene in which Mia and her boyfriend pretend their bodies are instruments to play.

Overall, If I Stay is a quick, intense and moving book.  There are no chapter headings; instead the story is organized by time.  Mia’s grim diagnosis fluctuates constantly so every second truly counts.   I will definitely be continuing this emotional read with book #2, Where She Went. 

If You Find Me by Emily Murdoch

 

There are some things you can’t leave behind…

A broken-down camper hidden deep in a national forest is the only home fifteen year-old Carey can remember. The trees keep guard over her threadbare existence, with the one bright spot being Carey’s younger sister, Jenessa, who depends on Carey for her very survival. All they have is each other, as their mentally ill mother comes and goes with greater frequency. Until that one fateful day their mother disappears for good, and two strangers arrive. Suddenly, the girls are taken from the woods and thrust into a bright and perplexing new world of high school, clothes and boys.

Now, Carey must face the truth of why her mother abducted her ten years ago, while haunted by a past that won’t let her go… a dark past that hides many a secret, including the reason Jenessa hasn’t spoken a word in over a year. Carey knows she must keep her sister close, and her secrets even closer, or risk watching her new life come crashing down.

if you finddd

Many of my latest reads have featured terrible, dysfunctional families, but I think Carey’s mentally ill and drug addicted mother takes the cake. The level of neglect and abuse will break your heart.   From the very first page, we learn of Carey and her younger sister, Janessa’s sad and miserable living situation, consisting of: canned beans, clothes that stink of cat urine, and an abandoned cockroach filled camper in the woods.  But that’s not even the worst part…

Throughout the divided three parts (The End, The Middle, The Beginning), Carey hints at the trauma they’ve endured as the “white-star night”.  It’s not until the last few pages that readers learn what really happened the night Janessa stopped talking.  Warning—this violent scene was really difficult to read.  Despite this, If You Find Me is truly a story of resilience and the power of sisterly bonds. After being discovered by a social worker and Carey’s dad, the sisters are able to overcome unimaginable horror and adjust reasonably well to new life.  There were peaks of happiness and hope that were fully welcomed in this book of dark and traumatic events.

Overall, If You Find Me is a quick 245 page read.  Murdoch hooks the reader in within the first couple paragraphs and takes them on a haunting emotional journey that uniquely explores identity and family. A recommended read.

Wonder by R.J Palacio

From Goodreads:

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

August (Auggie) Pullman was born with a facial deformity that prevented him from going to a mainstream school—until now. He’s about to start 5th grade at Beecher Prep, and if you’ve ever been the new kid then you know how hard that can be. The thing is Auggie’s just an ordinary kid, with an extraordinary face. But can he convince his new classmates that he’s just like them, despite appearances?

wonder

Inspired by all the other ‘Auggies’, Palacio wrote this Wonderful funny, contemporary, junior fiction book about a boy born with a facial deformity.

Divided into eight parts, August’s story is told by a variety of intertwining characters:  August himself, Via (his sister), Summer (his friend), Justin (Via’s boyfriend), and Miranda (Via’s old friend).  Some perspectives were a curious addition, as I didn’t feel they were completely necessary to provide insight into August’s struggles.  I was expecting to come across the bully’s (Julian) point of view, and hoping for August’s parents.  Sadly, I was disappointed.

I loved reading about August’s loving and supportive family. The dynamics are interesting, especially with the insight to Via’s feelings of neglect and the special bond with her grandmother.  Coming second to August all the time would be extremely difficult. However, being born with a facial deformity would be even more challenging. I think August’s enduring spirit and his ability to poke fun of himself is what readers will fall in love with.  Although it is classified as ‘junior fiction’, it has an important message of acceptance, fitting in, inner beauty and bullying that makes it a great read for all ages.

As the story closes, the uplifting ending was just a tad too perfect and a little unrealistic.  However, the overall warm message about courage and love really tugged my heart strings so I’m willing to let my critiques go. I know everyone has their own insecurities (often not as obvious as August’s) but it’s a nice reminder to ‘always try to be a little kinder than necessary’ to all those you come in contact with.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Aristotle is an angry teen with a brother in prison. Dante is a know-it-all who has an unusual way of looking at the world. When the two meet at the swimming pool, they seem to have nothing in common. But as the loners start spending time together, they discover that they share a special friendship—the kind that changes lives and lasts a lifetime. And it is through this friendship that Ari and Dante will learn the most important truths about themselves and the kind of people they want to be.

aris

Wow. What a beautiful book.  I’m so happy its receiving recognition as one of the best LGBTQ young adult novels out there.  There is so much honesty in the characters and story that readers can’t help but become emotionally involved in Ari and Dante’s relationship.  It is truly a coming of age story of two Mexican American teens trying to find their place in the world.  Told from Ari’s perspective (and a couple of letters from Dante), readers feel Ari and Dante’s love, pain, and heartache. Although the book explores sexuality and identity, Saenz also includes important themes of family and growing up. Both Ari’s and Dante’s family’s played a huge role in their lives. It was so heart warming to read about open, accepting families with unconditional love for their sons. It’s no wonder the boys were ‘crazy’ for their parents- I would be too!

Overall, this moving book will appeal to anyone who has ever felt different. There are many mysteries in life; one of the biggest is figuring out who we are and how we fit in the world.  I think this quote from the book sums it all up nicely:

 “Somewhere toward the end of the shift we all started singing U2 songs. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Yeah, that was a good song. My theme song. But really I thought it was everybody’s theme song.”

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