To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han

 

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is the story of Lara Jean, who has never openly admitted her crushes, but instead wrote each boy a letter about how she felt, sealed it, and hid it in a box under her bed. But one day Lara Jean discovers that somehow her secret box of letters has been mailed, causing all her crushes from her past to confront her about the letters: her first kiss, the boy from summer camp, even her sister’s ex-boyfriend, Josh. As she learns to deal with her past loves face to face, Lara Jean discovers that something good may come out of these letters after all.

to all the boys photo

My first Jenny Han read comes compliments of PLA. I eyed the gorgeous cover, and scooped it up immediately. I connected with the narrator Lara Jean, right from the first page. I too am a keeper of all things and love to bake, knit, scrapbook and go antiquing. Like Lara Jean, I also would pour my emotions into my writing, opting for poems/songs instead of letters. I’m not sure how I would have reacted to someone sending my past loves these notes, but I thought Lara Jean handled it exceptionally well.  Her character was well written, and felt authentic. Her sisterly bond with Margot and Kitty were a nice addition to some of the typical high school stories.  It is a unique and interesting dynamic, and I’m glad it’s portrayed realistically, including the frequent fights and makeups!

In terms of romance, there is a bit of a love triangle… but really, Lara Jean’s real love interest becomes blatantly obvious and makes the storyline a tad predictable.  However, the ending to their complicated love story is anything but. I was expecting everything to wrap up beautifully, so I embraced the messier ending, and was able to imagine my own conclusion. I know many readers disagree with me, but I really hope it remains a standalone novel as the story felt complete as is. UPDATE-Found out book #2 P.S. I Still Love You is in the works for 2015. BUMMER.

I encourage you to add this contemporary high school romance to your reader radar. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is available April 15, 2014.

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The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

beginning

When I found out the generic title of The Beginning of Everything, was originally Severed Heads, Broken Hearts, I was totally disappointed!  I actually read this book a few months back, and had to re-read the synopsis to remember…oh the one with the theme park decapitation!  The title of Severed Heads would have made it direct and memorable.

So while it does begin with a gruesome death, it ends up being a story about friendships in high school.  Along with that, popularity and individuality issues arise. The story is very character driven, focusing on the once popular Ezra Faulkner as he honestly and painfully explores a new life, with new friends, that help set him on a path of self- acceptance.

Although very little happens plot-wise, some readers may be able to guess the ‘big reveal’ that pieces Cassidy (Ezra’s new love interest) and Ezra together.  I thought it was an overly nice coincidence that wraps everything up. This coincidence leads to the relationship’s demise, and it’s a love or hate ending.   I thought the breakup was honest and real, but I hated the coyote scene. I thought it served absolutely no purpose.

Overall, an OK read with a good take away message for teens.  While I wasn’t super impressed, check out some of the starred reviews, The Beginning of Everything has received:

 

Starred Reviews:

“Here are teens who could easily trade barbs and double-entendres with the characters that fill John Green’s novels…subtle turns of phrase make reading and rereading this novel a delight.”  – Kirkus (Starred Review)

“This thought-provoking novel about smart kids doing interesting things will resonate with the John Green contingent, as it is tinged with sadness, high jinks, wry humor and philosophical pondering in equal measures.”  – Booklist (Starred Review)

“An engrossing romance in which tragedy brings two teens together, then threatens to tear them apart…Schneider shows remarkable skill at getting inside her narrator’s head as his life swings between disaster and recovery.”  – Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)

This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales

Making friends has never been Elise Dembowski’s strong suit. All throughout her life, she’s been the butt of every joke and the outsider in every conversation. When a final attempt at popularity fails, Elise nearly gives up. Then she stumbles upon a warehouse party where she meets Vicky, a girl in a band who accepts her; Char, a cute, yet mysterious disc jockey; Pippa, a carefree spirit from England; and most importantly, a love for DJing. 

song

Happy (early) Valentines Day! If you are without a date, you can always spend the night with a reliable book boyfriend.  Or, check out TSWSYL if you share in Elise’s love of music. ♥

I devoured TSWSYL in two sittings.  I was so caught up in Elise’s story that I never felt like I was reading. Immediately, I was able to connect to Elise’s real and relatable character.  Elise struggles to fit in with her classmates, and spends a summer trying to learn how to be ‘cool’.  Unfortunately, her doubts and insecurities become too much to bear and she turns to self-cutting.  Luckily, music enters her life and the story begins to change from heartbreaking to inspiring. Elise finds her true passion in being a DJ, and slowly begins to accept her true self.  My friend has a tattoo that reads, ‘music mends broken hearts’ and I think it’s definitely true in Elise’s case.   In addition to the music, an interesting cast of characters (all with their own faults) help Elise realize her potential.  Although I doubt a few hours of practice can turn anyone into an amazing DJ (especially at 16), I am willing to overlook this.

Overall, I adored this contemporary, coming of age novel. It is powerful, and emotional. Readers are reminded to discover and embrace themselves and find comfort in the power of music. Don’t forget to check out the recommended indie dance song tracks listed in the back! I’m listening to ‘Come on Eileen’ as I write this review.  TSWSYL is my favourite 2014 read, thus far.  Pick it up today!

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.

 

Review: Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

eleanor photo

Tons of buzz happenin’ for this quirky YA book about two misfits falling in love.  It’s mostly a love story, but serious issues like self-esteem, bullying and domestic abuse are also covered through Eleanor and Park’s alternating points of view. I did enjoy their romance (and the brilliant hand holding scenes), but I didn’t get the extremely quick progression from barely looking/speaking to each other to being super in love. Not just in love, but the deep intense infatuation kind of love. It gets so cheesy, as ‘“I don’t like you, Park,” she said, sounding for a second like she actually meant it. “I…”-her voice nearly disappeared-“think I live for you.” (P.111) and “I don’t think I even breathe when we’re not together,” she whispered. (p.111)   

As individuals, both Eleanor and Park are both interesting and flawed teens.  Eleanor is a red-headed, overweight girl with Goodwill clothes and a twisted family dynamic. Park is a small, quiet, insecure Asian kid that feels like an outsider in his own community. The character building was phenomenal and I loved that they weren’t the typical bad boy/hot girl combo we usually get in YA.

One other thing- the story takes place in the year 1986. If it weren’t for the continuous references to 80’s music and the cassette player, I could have easily imagined it to take place in the here and now. It reads very current and contemporary. I’m still not sure if that’s a good or bad thing… bad because I didn’t feel the 80’s vibe, or good because falling in love is timeless? Regardless, I would love to find out why Rowell set her story (besides being totally rad) in the 1980’s.

In the end, Rowell leaves Eleanor and Park’s heartwarming/heartbreaking love story for the reader to interpret.  Plenty of obstacles complicate this awkward, weird, quirky, touching love, but I can’t help but root for these two eccentric outcasts. 

Review: Slammed by Colleen Hoover

Following the unexpected death of her father, 18-year-old Layken is forced to be the rock for both her mother and younger brother. Outwardly, she appears resilient and tenacious, but inwardly, she’s losing hope. Enter Will Cooper: The attractive, 21-year-old new neighbor with an intriguing passion for slam poetry and a unique sense of humor. Within days of their introduction, Will and Layken form an intense emotional connection, leaving Layken with a renewed sense of hope. Not long after an intense, heart-stopping first date, they are slammed to the core when a shocking revelation forces their new relationship to a sudden halt. Daily interactions become impossibly painful as they struggle to find a balance between the feelings that pull them together, and the secret that keeps them apart.

slammed

I’ve been following this trend with ‘new adult’ fiction, and one of the most mentioned books is Slammed. ‘New adult’ often refers to books with content in between teen and adult. My curiosity peaked, I checked out the book.

While I’d really like to write my review as a slam, it’s been way too long of a day for me to even attempt that. Instead, I will give you a one word review – AMAZING. This captivating book has plenty of powerful messages on life, love, and family. It evoked so many emotions, especially the twists I didn’t see coming! I completely devoured the book in less than a day.

I really love words and poetry so this book was a perfect fit. In high school, my teacher actually encouraged me to submit my poems in contests, and two of them ended up getting published in the Canadian Anthology of Verse. Poems are often very private and personal, so I was proud of Lake when she ‘pushed her boundaries’ and performed her slam at the club. Once you read the book, you’ll understand just how clever all the slams are. For a taste, here is a sample of one of Layken’s slams:

I got schooled this year
by
a
Boy.

a boy that I’m seriously,
deeply, madly, incredibly,
and undeniably
in love
with.
And he taught me the most
important thing of all
To put the emphasis
On life.

Regardless of the reader’s age, this book is suitable for anyone with a love of words.  If you enjoyed Slammed, you’ll be happy to know that it is the first in the series. Point of Retreat continues Layken and Will’s relationship.  I haven’t decided if I’ll read it yet because I was really satisfied and happy with the ending of Slammed. Layken and Will both experienced so much hardship and grief that I want to continue imagining them living on as it ended in book one. Most of all, I hope and imagine Layken takes into consideration her mom’s long list of advice. The advice served as a great reminder to us all, especially: “Don’t take life too seriously. Punch it in the face when it needs a good hit. Laugh at it”.

Now go borrow or buy a copy of this fabulous book right now. I’m not kidding– GO! You won’t regret it!

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl By Jesse Andrews

Greg Gaines is the last master of high school espionage, able to disappear at will into any social environment. He has only one friend, Earl, and together they spend their time making movies, their own incomprehensible versions of Coppola and Herzog cult classics.

Until Greg’s mother forces him to rekindle his childhood friendship with Rachel.

Rachel has been diagnosed with leukemia—-cue extreme adolescent awkwardness—-but a parental mandate has been issued and must be obeyed. When Rachel stops treatment, Greg and Earl decide the thing to do is to make a film for her, which turns into the Worst Film Ever Made and becomes a turning point in each of their lives.

And all at once Greg must abandon invisibility and stand in the spotlight.

me earl

This book completed my Goodreads challenge for the year! I met my goal (just barely) with 35 books! Yay! Despite two moves, new job, new city, buying our first house, and getting engaged, I still think next year will be busier as the wedding date approaches. I hope to keep up with my blog in 2013, but if posts aren’t as frequent—you know why.

Ok, back to the review. For my last book of 2012, I was looking for a funny, quick read and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl sure delivered. By the title, you may assume the book is a serious, thought provoking read, but it was actually one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. There was a message about death and dying, but not the typical takeaway message. It was more along the lines of death sucks, and sometimes you don’t learn anything from it. Actually, in Greg’s note at the beginning, he warns readers, ‘this book contains precisely zero Important Life Lessons, or Little-Known Facts about Love, or sappy tear-jerking Moments When We Knew We Had Left Our Childhood Behind for Good, or whatever’.

I must admit, it took me a bit warm to Greg’s voice and the writing style. His teenage frame of mind is quite edgy and in no way G rated. However, I think it’s very realistic of how teenage boys think. Here is a sample of what I mean:

The Greg S.Gaines three step method of seduction

1. lurch into girl’s bedroom pretending to be a zombie

2. go for a fist pound

3. suggest that you habitually masturbate all over pillows

He’s totally awkward and makes sexual references all the time (especially with his friend Earl.) Speaking of Earl, one of favourite parts is when Greg and Earl accidentally ingest marijuana and think it was from their teacher’s soup. It had me laughing out loud!

I can see how the stylistic choices would appeal to reluctant readers. First off, the bright cover art, immediately grabs the reader’s attention. Next, the inclusion of screenplay style, bullet points, and newspaper headlines throughout the book all visually help to break up the text. Also the interesting chapter titles like ‘Earl Betrays Our Entire Creative Partnership While I am Distracted by the Munchies’ are just so much fun! Who wouldn’t want to read that chapter?

Overall, the book was a strange but wonderful contemporary read.  Although nothing really happens, it’s the quirky characters that make the book stand out. This book may not be for everyone but I sure loved it.

–FIN–

Review: What happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen

Since her parents’ bitter divorce, McLean and her dad, a restaurant consultant, have been on the move-four towns in two years. Estranged from her mother and her mother’s new family, McLean has followed her dad in leaving the unhappy past behind. And each new place gives her a chance to try out a new persona: from cheerleader to drama diva. But now, for the first time, McLean discovers a desire to stay in one place and just be herself, whoever that is. Perhaps Dave, the guy next door, can help her find out.

First, I must admit that this was my first Sarah Dessen book (gasp!)  Although one of the most well -known contemporary YA authors out there, I just haven’t been pushed to pick up one of her works (until now).  I really needed an audiobook for a long drive and I happened to come across What Happened to Goodbye.  The audiobook itself was narrated wonderfullyMeredith Hagner by Meredith Hagner. She nailed the ‘teen voice’ bang on (especially Heather).

The storyline itself was OK.  The very character driven book focused largely on McLean’s relationship with her parents and the aftermath of her parent’s divorce.  Since the storyline is slow and steady, some parts did drag on.  However, since the characters were so well developed, it was easy to feel for them as well.  I felt McLean’s anger toward her mother, and her protectiveness over her father.  Yet, I did not really feel the whole romance connection between McLean and Dave.  There was not enough focus and exploration of this relationship to really convince me.

I enjoyed the restaurant aspect. It reminded me of being in an episode of ‘kitchen nightmares’ minus the terrifying Gordon Ramsey.  I used to work at a restaurant so the descriptive kitchen scenes transported me right into the chaos of dinner rush.  I could almost taste the fried pickles!

Overall, this contemporary book deals with some sensitive issues that many teens can identify with, including identity and family issues.  See more praise for this charming book below.

“Readers can count on Dessen; she’s a pro at creating characters caught at a nexus of change, who have broken relationships and who need to make decisions.” (Kirkus Reviews )

“Dessen’s prose is clean and focused, the characters are developed and real, and the plot is believable. Mclean’s journey through the healing process after her parents’ divorce provides bibliotherapy for any teen dealing with family issues, and the secondary plot of tentative steps toward trust and friendship is beautiful. This is a must-have for any young adult collection.” (VOYA )

 

Review: Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver

What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life?

Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last.

The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death–and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing.

Before I fall by Lauren Oliver was one of those books that have forever been on my ‘to-read’ list.  Described by many as a cross between ‘mean girls’ and ‘groundhog day’, I wasn’t super motivated to be transported back to my high school days where popularity was key, and rumours ran rampant. However, I must admit that I was missing out on this wonderful, thought provoking book! It is based on heavier subjects like death, suicide, and bullying, yet also touches on peer pressure, eating disorders and dysfunctional families too.

This is a rather lengthy book (470) pages, with only 7 chapters (1 for each day Sam re-lives). Sam has seven opportunities to understand what went so wrong, and how she can make it right. She fails miserable the first couple of times, but slowly begins to self reflect and understand how her actions can affect other people. Readers follow her path to redemption and along the way experience a wide range of emotions (frustration, anger, hope, etc.). 

I wasn’t sure how Oliver would be able to keep multiple days lived over and over again from being repetitive. Yet, she does this effortlessly.  There are different choices and events to give Sam the opportunity to make a difference.  Sam is by no means a perfect character, so her character growth from the beginning to end is believable.

There were so many lines and quotes that I loved, but my favourite was:

“So many things become beautiful when you really look (p. 344)”.  This book truly reminds us that our actions do affect others and to not take life for granted.  A recommended read for all.

 

 

Review: Skinny by Donna Cooner

Goodreads: Hopeless. Freak. Elephant. Pitiful. These are the words of Skinny, the vicious voice that lives inside fifteen-year-old Ever Davies’s head. Skinny tells Ever all the dark thoughts her classmates have about her. Ever knows she weighs over three hundred pounds, knows she’ll probably never be loved, and Skinny makes sure she never forgets it.

But there is another voice: Ever’s singing voice, which is beautiful but has been silenced by Skinny. Partly in the hopes of trying out for the school musical—and partly to try and save her own life—Ever decides to undergo a risky surgery that may help her lose weight and start over.

With the support of her best friend, Ever begins the uphill battle toward change. But demons, she finds, are not so easy to shake, not even as she sheds pounds. Because Skinny is still around. And Ever will have to confront that voice before she can truly find her own.

 

Expected publication: October 1st 2012 by Scholastic

First things first–I’m really hoping that the publishers listen to us reviewers by replacing their cover model.  The model in no way represents Ever (even at her lowest weight).  This book is all about loving yourself the way you are, and it’s such a shame that the first impression and overall selling image is of a non-curvy girl.

I also could have done without the overdone Cinderella plot (with the two stepsisters, stepmother and all!) Although Cooner adds issues of self-esteem and body image into the mix, there is still the classic story running throughout the entire book.    It is the inclusion of Skinny (a voice inside of Ever’s head) that differentiates the book from others.  Even though Skinny isn’t a real person, she might as well be for overweight teen Ever.  As obesity rates climb, many readers will able to relate to Ever as they too, likely experience a sort of ‘Skinny’ that influences their daily lives.  When Ever undergoes risky gastric bypass surgery, I think Cooner did a good job at not glamourizing the surgery.  Information about the surgery is given in a non-preachy way and both the good and bad effects (physical/emotional) are presented.  It’s interesting to note that in the author’s acknowledgements, Cooner discloses that like Ever, she too underwent gastric bypass surgery.  This real life experience undoubtedly helped to create the emotional character of Ever.

Overall, gastric bypass will unlikely be a viable option for most readers, and I do wish that Cooner made Ever more thoughtfully consider the likelihood of complications and death. I feel like it was an easy fix.  However, as mentioned, many readers will be able to relate to ‘Skinny’ and the take away message about loving yourself and being confident in your abilities always serves as a great reminder to teens.

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