Review: In Real Life

lifeTitle: In Real Life
Author: Jessica Love
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Pages: 240
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Received an e-ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
Availability: Available now

Summary: Hannah Cho and Nick Cooper have been best friends since 8th grade. They talk for hours on the phone, regularly shower each other with presents, and know everything there is to know about one another.

There’s just one problem: Hannah and Nick have never actually met.

Hannah has spent her entire life doing what she’s supposed to, but when her senior year spring break plans get ruined by a rule-breaker, she decides to break a rule or two herself. She impulsively decides to road trip to Vegas, her older sister and BFF in tow, to surprise Nick and finally declare her more-than-friend feelings for him.

Hannah’s romantic gesture backfires when she gets to Vegas and meets Nick’s girlfriend, whom he failed to mention. And it turns out his relationship status isn’t the only thing he’s been lying to her about. Hannah knows the real Nick can’t be that different from the online Nick she knows and loves, but now she only has one night in Sin City to figure out what her feelings for Nick really are, all while discovering how life can change when you break the rules every now and then.

Review: I requested this ARC because I thought it could be a fun story—some of my closest friends are people I met online, and some of those friendships have since transferred from online only to “real life.” I was certain that throwing romance into the mix with a heavy dose of Las Vegas would make things even more exciting. Instead, the first chapter opened on a sour note it never quite recovered from when Hannah, the Korean-American narrator, spent a great deal of time complaining about how Aditi Singh (presumably another girl of color) “stole” a student government trip that should have “belonged” to Hannah even though it is implied the trip is merit-based and Aditi’s application was the better one.

Unfortunately, Hannah continues to pit herself against basically every girl in the story, from her sister, Grace, to her best friend, Lo, to Nick’s girlfriend, Frankie. It gets particularly bad when Frankie is in the picture as Hannah can’t seem to comment on Frankie’s appearance without snarking about the size of Frankie’s breasts or being horribly jealous whenever Frankie comes in contact with her boyfriend. Hannah’s possessiveness over Nick—who isn’t her boyfriend and whose affections she shot down prior to the start of the story—becomes frustrating in short order when it is constantly accompanied by petty commentary about Frankie and isn’t alleviated by the rare moments when Hannah admits there are good points about Frankie.

There are also a few moments re: race that gave me pause, such as Hannah’s description of herself: “[breaking rules] goes against my Good Korean Girl DNA. Rules are made to be followed—at least that’s what my parents, who aren’t Tiger Parents or anything but are still pretty serious, drilled into me starting the second I learned to crawl.” I was also unimpressed with how close Lo came to several negative Latinx stereotypes. It felt like the author had tried to write racially diverse characters but didn’t understand how particular character traits/plot points could become harmful stereotypes when applied to characters of color.

The plot itself is a frustrating cycle of will-Hannah-confess-or-not, with her constantly convincing herself to say something and then either getting interrupted or running away from the opportunity. While there are some fun moments between her and Nick, they are undercut by the constant wheel-spinning, and Nick’s not-quite-ambiguity about pursuing something with Hannah despite having a girlfriend already made it difficult to root for the couple.

Recommendation: Just skip it. While there are a few good moments, In Real Life is overall an unsatisfying and frustrating read.

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For the Record

21424692Title: For the Record
Author: Charlotte Huang
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 307
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Review copy: Library
Availability: November 10th, 2015

Summary: Chelsea thought she knew what being a rock star was like… until she became one. After losing a TV talent show, she slid back into small-town anonymity. But one phone call changed everything. Now she’s the lead singer of the band Melbourne, performing in sold-out clubs every night and living on a bus with three gorgeous and talented guys. The bummer is that the band barely tolerates her. And when teen heartthrob Lucas Rivers take an interest in her, Chelsea is suddenly famous, bringing Melbourne to the next level—not that they’re happy about that. Her feelings for Beckett, Melbourne’s bassist, are making life even more complicated.
 
Chelsea only has the summer tour to make the band—and their fans—love her. If she doesn’t, she’ll be back in Michigan for senior year, dying a slow death. The paparazzi, the haters, the grueling schedule… Chelsea believed she could handle it. But what if she can’t? [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: For the Record chronicles small-town girl Chelsea when she joins a band on tour after losing on a music talent TV show (basically, the fictional equivalent of American Idol). She rocks out, falls in love, and gets famous — definitely a roller coaster of sorts. I read the entire book in one sitting, unable to tear my eyes away.

The events of For the Record are very much told and experienced in the present, in a linear fashion. The bus goes from one stop to the next, and Chelsea grows as a rock star with each show. The tour details and band drama provide an inside look at what goes on during tours (or maybe not? I don’t know, having never been a teen music sensation).

The story is so much in the present, in fact, that references to Chelsea’s backstory — that she was ostracized in high school, starred in an American Idol equivalent, and then signed on to replace the missing lead singer of the band Melbourne — ring almost hollow. It felt like there was an entire prequel missing, and I’d been thrown into the middle of something. Chelsea’s backstory, her history with her best friend Mandy, and her crush on Beckett all felt like facts told to the reader. I hate to trot out the tired old cliche of “show, don’t tell,” but it feels relevant in this case.

This is definitely a read that reels you in, but only if you can manage to suspend your disbelief when it comes to character motivations and the like. The drama and non-stop grind of show after show keeps you reading. Still, when I finished the book, I couldn’t say for certain that I understood any of the heroes of this story.

If you’re into rock-n-roll band stories and the lives of the famous, definitely pick up For the Record to read sometime.

Recommendation: Borrow it someday.

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Book Review: The Love that Split the World

The Love that Split the WorldTitle: The Love that Split the World
Author: Emily Henry
Genres:  Magical Realism
Pages: 390
Publisher: Razorbill
Review Copy: I should start owning stock in Barnes & Noble
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Natalie Cleary must risk her future and leap blindly into a vast unknown for the chance to build a new world with the boy she loves.

Natalie’s last summer in her small Kentucky hometown is off to a magical start… until she starts seeing the “wrong things.” They’re just momentary glimpses at first—her front door is red instead of its usual green, there’s a pre-school where the garden store should be. But then her whole town disappears for hours, fading away into rolling hills and grazing buffalo, and Nat knows something isn’t right.

That’s when she gets a visit from the kind but mysterious apparition she calls “Grandmother,” who tells her: “You have three months to save him.” The next night, under the stadium lights of the high school football field, she meets a beautiful boy named Beau, and it’s as if time just stops and nothing exists. Nothing, except Natalie and Beau.

Review: Emily Henry’s debut novel is being marketed as a mix between Friday Night Lights and The Time Traveler’s Wife, and while I haven’t read Friday Night Lights, I did fall in love with The Time Traveler’s Wife so I figured I would most likely enjoy this novel. And I was right. I greatly enjoyed Henry’s novel and found myself lost in the story, trying to discover the mystery of who was Grandmother.

While this novel is being marketed as a romance, I feel like it was more a novel of discovering the self. The story opens with Natalie graduating high school and preparing to leave for Brown University in the fall. She is preparing for her goodbyes from family and friends, yet is also looking forward to beginning a new life. This time of change, for many who decide to go away for school, is a time where you reflect on your life, specifically your high school years, and try to anticipate what your college life will be like. Natalie is going through these emotions, but with an added pressure by her “Grandmother” to save him. Natalie doesn’t know who “he” is, but also learns that “Grandmother” the supernatural being who has been with her, sharing beautiful parables with her throughout her life will also be leaving her. And with that knowledge, Natalie sets out to discover who “Grandmother” really is and what role the old lady plays in her life. Natalie has to look inward, at her past, her childhood, and even look at her heritage, in order to find her answers. To me, this search for self was much more powerful and interesting than the romance. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the romance, but Natalie’s search for understanding herself, understanding her own mind and beginning to take ownership of her ability to manipulate time really connected with me.

Natalie was already on a path of claiming herself and her heritage, she is American Indian and adopted by a White couple, by deciding to forge her own path. Henry did an excellent job portraying the personal tensions that come from when a child is a different heritage from their parents, and she even mentions the complexities of American Indian adoption. I loved that Henry did not pretend that Natalie’s heritage didn’t effect her outlook on life, but that it colored how she viewed her world.  About a year prior to the start of the novel, Natalie has experienced an identity shift where she decides to be true to herself and to stop trying to fit in to a concept of who she should be. She has quit dance and has become more outspoken about many social issues. I think by having Natalie already think about her role in the world and already be on the journey of discovering the self, what she experiences, the growth she undergoes through the novel, helps the reader understand the choice she makes at the end.

One part about this novel I do want to mention is the parables that Grandmother shares with Natalie. Henry did a great job of presenting different types of parables from different American Indian nations and even includes a Biblical parable. Like any elder, the stories Grandmother shares with Natalie not only teach her about different cultures, but also provide lessons and insights into Natalie’s situation, helping her solve the mystery of who Grandmother is and how Natalie needs to save him. Well, not all the parables add to the mystery, sometimes a story is just a story that elders tell to their children, and that is what really endeared me to many of the tories. In her acknowledgements, Henry gave credit to the nation’s stories that she used and it was clear she did proper research.

Recommendation: Overall, I found Henry’s debut very enjoyable and got lost in the story. If you are a fan of time bending romance, this is the book for you.

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Review: A Memory of Light

lightTitle: The Memory of Light
Author: Francisco X. Stork
Genres: Contemporary
Pages: 325
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: When Vicky Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital Mental Disorders ward, she knows one thing: She can’t even commit suicide right. But for once, a mistake works out well for her, as she meets Mona, the live wire; Gabriel, the saint; E.M., always angry; and Dr. Desai, a quiet force. With stories and honesty, kindness and hard work, they push her to reconsider her life before Lakeview, and offer her an acceptance she’s never had.

But Vicky’s newfound peace is as fragile as the roses that grow around the hospital. And when a crisis forces the group to split up, sending her back to the life that drove her to suicide, Vicky must try to find the strength to carry on. She may not have it. She doesn’t know.

Inspired in part by the author’s own experience with depression, The Memory of Light is the rare young adult novel that focuses not on the events leading up to a suicide attempt, but the recovery from one — about living when life doesn’t seem worth it, and how we go on anyway.

Review: The Memory of Light is compassionate look at Latina teenager Vicky Cruz in the aftermath of her suicide attempt, and it is also a hopeful look at a young woman’s attempt to recover from it. One of the many things I liked about this book was the diversity of its cast—racially and/or ethnically, neurologically, and economically—and how those things inform the world and its characters.

There is no traumatic tipping point for Vicky’s depression, no horrific event she must overcome. And while those stories are important to tell, it is equally important to tell stories where depression seeps into being, where there is no pivotal moment to kickstart a depressive episode, where the protagonist realizes that somewhere along the way her brain has changed the way it works. Some of the most memorable scenes in Memory are Vicky finally being able to describe what her thoughts and feelings are like. Vicky’s slow-building insights into herself, her family, and her school life are equally complicated and honest. Her conversations with her sister and her father are difficult, as is her return to her home and school. Recovery isn’t linear for Vicky, and Memory doesn’t shy away from depicting how taxing it can be to do something as simple as going to class.

The friendships Vicky and the other teens at Lakeview form help all of them share and forge tools to manage their illnesses. Mona, E.M., and Gabriel are all distinct characters with different motivations, family circumstances, and mental health. (I would very much value other reviewers’ opinions on how those mental illnesses were handled as I am less familiar with them and their associated tropes.) While I rather liked Dr. Desai’s character, her professional ethics made me raise an eyebrow several times, particularly since the majority of the breaches were obviously made so Vicky could get the information she needed and move the plot forward.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the climax of the book—much of it seemed rushed and dependent on external peril, in contrast to the quieter, internal focus of the rest of the novel. Several of the characters that I thought could have been important to Vicky’s journey weren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, particularly Juanita and Barbara.

Author Francisco X. Stork doesn’t wrap everything up with tidy bows; by the end of Memory, all of the Lakeview quartet are in different places, but not all of those places are objectively better. Vicky’s own recovery is a possible, but not certain, thing, though I would term the ending a hopeful one. Stork ensured that Vicky acquired the tools and the start of a support network she needed to be able to continue living.

Recommendation: Get it soon. While The Memory of Light has a few blemishes, it is still a solid effort to depict the aftermath of a suicide attempt and figuring out how to live even when it seems like the effort isn’t worth the cost.

Extras
What I Learned About Depression by Francisco X. Stork

Ten Observations on Depression by Francisco X. Stork

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Book Review: Untwine

untwineTitle: Untwine
Author: Edwidge Danticat
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 320
Publisher: Scholastic
Review Copy: Support your local library!
Availability: Available Now

Summary: Sixteen-year-old Giselle Boyer and her identical twin, Isabelle, are as close as sisters can be. They are each other’s strongest source of support even as their family life seems to be unraveling and their parents are considering divorce. Then the Boyers have a tragic encounter that will shatter everyone’s world forever.

Giselle wakes up in a hospital room, injured and unable to speak or move. She doesn’t know what’s happened to her sister, to her family, to herself. Trapped in the prison of her own body, Giselle must revisit her past in order to understand how the people closest to her—her friends, her parents, and above all, Isabelle—have shaped and defined her. Will she allow her love for her family and friends to buoy her and lead her on the path to recovery? Or will she remain lost in a painful spiral of longing and regret?

Review: Much talk has been made, erroneously, that YA literature  is not literary enough and for all those folks, I’d suggest they pick up Untwine as Danticat’s novel is the epitome of a moving literary character study novel. It is the story of sisterhood, tragedy, family and ultimately healing. The writing is very chewy, like enjoying a gourmet meal.

While I ultimately enjoyed the novel and was moved by the story, the pacing was a little slow and the beginning, due to the structure of the novel, took a bit to get to. The novel begins with the accident that lends Giselle in the hospital and her time in the hospital. However, because Giselle is in a coma like state, the first quarter of the novel is spent in her mind, which creates a sort of stream of consciousness feel to the novel. That is also when we experience Giselle and Isabelle’s relationship as Giselle spends much of her coma reflecting on the past. She is able to see and hear her doctor and her family members, but she can’t interact with them. And because of that, it seems for the first part of the novel, there is very little movement within the plot and I can understand how some readers would be thrown off by that. Since I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness stories, I will admit that I struggled a bit and was concerned that the novel would be entirely in this style. It isn’t and the plot begins to move forward when Giselle finally wakes up.

It is at that point that the novel focuses on dealing with loss and the eventual steps towards healing. It is also when I fully began to connect with Giselle. I will fully admit that I cried during Isabelle’s funeral as Danticat fully tapped into the pain and sense of loss that Giselle’s entire family was feeling, but more so with Giselle who feels like she has lost a part of herself, a part of her identity. Giselle also struggles with survivors guilt as she also has to come to terms with a life without her sister. She even questions her existence because if her twin is dead, is she still a twin? This existential question that Giselle faces (and the title of the book alludes to) is what makes this novel such an interesting literary character study. And ultimately, what makes this a good read.

Even though I struggled to get into the story, I was deeply moved by the end and even shed a few tears. To me, if a novel brings actual tears to my eyes, then the author has done an excellent job of connecting me to the characters, making me think, but most importantly making me feel. It is the ability to make my heart wrench of her characters is why I love Danticat’s writing and was so excited for this novel. And I was definitely satisfied.

Lastly, on a completely shallow note, I absolutely adore the cover. It is just absolutely beautiful.

Recommendation: If you are a fan of literary character study novels, this is the book for you.

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Book Review: Consent

ConsentTitle: Consent
Author: Nancy Ohlin
Genres:  Contemporary
Pages: 320
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Review Copy: ARC from Publisher
Availability: Available Now

Summary: In this sexy and intriguing novel, an intense—and passionate—bond between a high school senior and her music teacher becomes a public scandal that threatens the reputation of both.

Bea has a secret.

Actually, she has more than one. There’s her dream for the future that she can’t tell anyone—not her father and not even her best friend, Plum.

And now there’s Dane Rossi. Dane is hot, he shares Bea’s love of piano, and he believes in her.
He’s also Bea’s teacher.

When their passion for music crosses into passion for each other, Bea finds herself falling completely for Dane. She’s never felt so wanted, so understood, so known to her core. But the risk of discovery carries unexpected surprises that could shake Bea entirely. Bea must piece together what is and isn’t true about Dane, herself, and the most intense relationship she’s ever experienced in this absorbing novel from Nancy Ohlin, the author of Beauty.

Review: To be honest, I was hesitant to read, let alone review, Consent due to the subject matter of a teacher-student romantic relationship because being a teacher these stories tend to make me really uncomfortable. I know these relationships are, unfortunately, all to common and I often wonder what propels these teachers to cross that line. On the flip side, I do know of students who also take it to far in their affections for their teachers (I once came across a site that was about what girls would do to get their male English teachers to notice/date them. It was very disturbing.) With that in mind, I decided I would get over my discomfort and read Nancy Ohlin’s Consent with an open mind and I’m thankful I did.

Consent is a morally complicated novel that explores how Bea and Dane’s relationship is even able to develop. It starts of innocently enough with the connection that many student-teachers have when a teacher sees the potential in a student and helps them see that potential. Bea does acknowledge her attraction to Dane, but stifles it because he is her teacher. The same can be said for Dane as in their interactions, he often realizes he’s about to cross that line and takes a huge step back. I love that Ohlin made the relationship a slow burn, and had both parties recoginize how a relationship between them would be wrong. At no point does their relationship feel salacious, as Ohlin focuses on the conflict between what their heart’s desire and what is the right thing to do. In fact, when they do actually become intimate, the moment makes sense. They are both caught up in the emotion of a successful day, where Bea had auditioned for Dane’s former, very famous, teacher at Juliard, and well, begin their romantic relationship. Ohlin makes their relationship brief, as they decide to wait until she actually turns 18, but end up being discovered anyway. The rest of the novel then focuses on the fall out of the discovery of their relationship.

The fact that Ohlin chose to make the relationship brief, and focus on the build up, and the fallout is what makes the novel work, for me. Bea and Dane’s story becomes real, true, because relationships, particularly student-teacher relationships, are complicated. Bea is at a moment in her life where she is in need of guidance as she is on the cusp of adulthood, and Dane is the person who opens her eyes to a path that she had convinced herself that she couldn’t travel down. Bea’s relationship with the men in her life (her father and brother) is a tense one, and at one point Bea even wonders if her fascination with Dane is because she has daddy issues. It is this thoughtful analysis that Bea has with her relationship with Dane, before they become intimate, is why I greatly enjoyed the novel. Bea is a character is who is fully aware of her issues and owns them. At no point is she pulled into the relationship with Dane; she enters an intimate relationship with him fully acknowledging all the risks and the consequences should they be found out. Olin did a masterful job in her creation of Bea, as she is a character we can relate to, and understand how and why she becomes involved with her teacher.

Despite my hesitation at the beginning, I really ended up enjoying Consent. Bea’s voice pulled me into the story and I connected with this girl who was hiding a large part of herself in order to please her family. Her relationship with her teacher does allow for Bea to find herself, to grow, and become the person she always wanted to be and for me, that is what made the novel, what made me accept Bea and Dane’s relationship.

On a side, much funnier note, Bea and her friend Plum call Dane “Kit Harrington” after the actor from Game of Thrones because Ohlin describes him in that manner. As a fan of Game of Thrones and Harrington’s character, I had a clear picture in my mind of what Dane looked like and every time either girl called him Kit, I couldn’t help but giggle. If you don’t know who Kit Harrington is, google him. You won’t be disappointed.

Recommendation: If you love morally complicated novels, go buy this book!

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