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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Review: Burn Baby Burn

burnTitle: Burn Baby Burn
Author: Meg Medina
Publisher: Candlewick
Pages: 320
Genre: Historical, Romance
Review Copy: ARC via publisher
Availability: March 8, 2016

Summary: Nora Lopez is seventeen during the infamous New York summer of 1977, when the city is besieged by arson, a massive blackout, and a serial killer named Son of Sam who shoots young women on the streets. Nora’s family life isn’t going so well either: her bullying brother, Hector, is growing more threatening by the day, her mother is helpless and falling behind on the rent, and her father calls only on holidays. All Nora wants is to turn eighteen and be on her own. And while there is a cute new guy who started working with her at the deli, is dating even worth the risk when the killer likes picking off couples who stay out too late? Award-winning author Meg Medina transports us to a time when New York seemed balanced on a knife-edge, with tempers and temperatures running high, to share the story of a young woman who discovers that the greatest dangers are often closer than we like to admit — and the hardest to accept.

Review: Meg Medina transports readers to one seriously sweltering, tension-filled summer. She created a satsifying sense of place. While reading Burn Baby Burn, I saw 70s New York and could practically feel the sweat dripping down my back. This was particularly amazing since my first read through happened during subfreezing winter temps here in the mid-west. Medina seamlessly wove in details that brought the summer of 1977 to life.

This was a remarkable summer given the presence of a serial killer in the area. The killings certainly added to the intensity of the novel since that part of the book was based on actual events. The inhumanity was horrifying. It was mirrored on a smaller scale though with Nora’s brother as he becomes colder and increasingly cruel towards his family. Nora and her mother don’t tell people outside the family about his bullying and also avoid talking about it among themselves. The worry about embarrassment or losing respectability keeps them silent even with close friends and relatives. This is a common response in the real world and one that could resonate with many readers.

It’s Nora’s senior year and she’s eager to get out and be on her own. The fears and responsibilities are wearing her down. She has no idea how to solve the many problems her family is facing and she is pinning all her hopes on simply escaping. Fortunately, Nora has many people in her life that nudge her toward possibilities. There are two adults in her school encouraging her to go on to college. She has talent for woodworking and fixing things, but has a hard time seeing herself going on to college. The cost, the likely attitudes and prejudice of male classmates, and other hurdles have her doubting. I loved that there are people in her corner reminding her of her strengths and what her future could be if she steps out and believes in herself.

Stiller is another adult nudging Nora and encouraging her to use her strength. I especially appreciated her. She’s a black woman who lives in their apartment building. According to Nora, “Stiller takes absolutely no shit.” She’s an activist with many causes and she has distinct opinions about the feminist movement. In a discussion about an upcoming women’s conference, Stiller “wants to see the needs of black women included or she won’t go. ‘Being oppressed as a woman is just one way of being held down Mary,’ she said.”

Women’s issues come up many times throughout the novel. Nora contemplates her place in the midst of her woodworking classes, how her mother has completely different standards for her and her brother, how men treat her on the street and more. Mary, the Mother of Nora’s best friend Kathleen, is also very invested in the feminist movement. This results in the girls becoming involved even when they aren’t totally sure how they feel about it all. They’re still figuring out what they believe and what is and isn’t important to them.

As with other books Medina has written, the main character is Cuban American. She doesn’t always claim this heritage and is conflicted about the times when she passes or doesn’t speak up in the face of racist comments in her presence. Racial issues are not the only theme in the book, but they are certainly present throughout.

And then there is the romance. Nora and Pablo have a bit of a rocky road, but it’s a satisfying trip. I really enjoyed the mix in this book. The romance is there, but it doesn’t overwhelm the story. There’s an excellent balance here between friendship, family, community, romance, racial issues and inner conflict. I almost forgot to mention the music! Nora and Kathleen share a love for dance and disco music. I found myself humming along and wanting to track down some of the tunes.

Recommendation: Get it as soon as you can! Meg Medina is an excellent storyteller. Burn Baby Burn is intense and suspenseful, but also manages to be hopeful. In spite of the many challenges, or maybe because of them, Nora is able to show her strength. I was cheering her on the whole way.

Extras:
Sample Chapter, Author Notes, Discussion Guide via Publisher
A Playlist for Burn Baby Burn
Book Trailer

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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: Juniors

JuniorsTitle:  Juniors
Author: Kaui Hart Hemmings
Genres: contemporary, romance
Pages: 320
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Availability: September 22nd, 2015

Summary: Lea Lane has lived in between all her life. Part Hawaiian, part Mainlander. Perpetual new girl at school. Hanging in the shadow of her actress mother’s spotlight. And now: new resident of the prominent West family’s guest cottage.

Bracing herself for the embarrassment of being her classmates’ latest charity case, Lea is surprised when she starts becoming friends with Will and Whitney West instead—or in the case of gorgeous, unattainable Will, possibly even more than friends. And despite their differences, Whitney and Lea have a lot in common: both are navigating a tangled web of relationships, past disappointments and future hopes. As things heat up with Will, and her friendship with Whitney deepens, Lea has to decide how much she’s willing to change in order to fit into their world. [Image and summary via Goodreads]

Review: Juniors is pretty much the perfect spring fling type of book. It’s the kind of book I’d expect to read when the weather’s warm, the sun’s out, and I’m chilling outside.It’s a book filled with luxury, surfing, romance, and, well, more surfing.

The heroine of Juniors, Lea Lane, moves to Hawaii for the last half of her junior year of high school with her actress-on-the-rise single mother. At the start, Lea’s having a hard time adjusting to her new school, setting down roots and making friends. When her mother gets invited by her rich friends to move into their cottage, Lea strikes up a friendship with the friend’s daughter Whitney and starts crushing on Whitney’s brother Will.

Throughout the book, you get a combination of Lea’s life in Hawaii — local culture, beach houses, trekking to the ocean — and her inner struggles. Like any teenager, she’s struggling to figure out who she is, how she fits in, and who her friends are. Her awkwardness, snarky remarks, and her hot-and-cold relationship with her mother were vividly depicted. Lea’s voice is strong throughout the book.

At times, her voice felt a little too real. Lea is certainly not perfect. She has insecurities a-plenty, including ones where she cringes at being thought of less than her rich friends, or viewed as like a maid or a foster child (hello, classism). She regards places that are frequented by locals as kind of sketch, and, like her peers, makes offensive jokes. It was hard to tell whether this was meant to show Lea as a realistic and flawed teen, or meant to be read surface-level (yikes).

Once you move past that — which can be kind of tough — it’s an enjoyable journey with Lea. The book left me wanting to head out to the beach, enjoy the sunset, and live life. The strength of Juniors mostly centers on Lea and her mother, which is one of the best mother-daughter relationships I’ve read in a while.

Ultimately, Juniors was a fun read. Check it out if you want a mostly-light read to pass the time!

Recommendation: Get it soon!

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Review: The Weight of Feathers

The Weight of FeathersTitle: The Weight of Feathers
Author: Anna-Marie McLemore
Genres: Romance, Fantasy, Magical Realism
Pages: 320
Publisher: A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin’s Griffin
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now

Summary: For twenty years, the Palomas and the Corbeaus have been rivals and enemies, locked in an escalating feud for over a generation. Both families make their living as traveling performers in competing shows—the Palomas swimming in mermaid exhibitions, the Corbeaus, former tightrope walkers, performing in the tallest trees they can find.

Lace Paloma may be new to her family’s show, but she knows as well as anyone that the Corbeaus are pure magia negra, black magic from the devil himself. Simply touching one could mean death, and she’s been taught from birth to keep away. But when disaster strikes the small town where both families are performing, it’s a Corbeau boy, Cluck, who saves Lace’s life. And his touch immerses her in the world of the Corbeaus, where falling for him could turn his own family against him, and one misstep can be just as dangerous on the ground as it is in the trees.

Beautifully written, and richly imaginative, The Weight of Feathers is an utterly captivating young adult novel by a talented new voice.

Review: The Weight of Feathers is a beautifully written book that depends not only on a cast of memorable characters but also a vivid, magical world. I purchased this book because I needed something to read on a late-night, three-hour airplane flight, and it kept me entertained the entire time.

The star-crossed lovers setup can lose a lot of its punch when the feud appears ridiculous or is easily circumvented, but Anna-Marie McLemore neatly dodges that trap with the tension between the Palomas and the Corbeaus. With the “inciting incidents” for the feud within living memory for the bulk of each large, tightly knit family, the conflicts feel immediate and raw. Deaths, sabotage, serious injuries, assaults—many members of each family have been perpetrators, victims, or indirectly affected. So when Lace is “cursed” with a feather mark during the disaster at Almendro and gets kicked out of her family, it takes no small amount of courage for her to venture to the Corbeau camp to try to earn her way out of the curse.

McLemore’s strength in creating engaging characters is immediately apparent with our two protagonists, Lace and Cluck. Their circumstances and personalities are well crafted and the arc of their friendship and romance felt believable and appropriately complicated due to their feuding families. There are a number of memorable characters in the supporting cast, though Cluck’s grandfather is easily the most interesting. Due to Lace’s exile, getting to know the other Palomas is a little harder, but I appreciated how McLemore compared and contrasted the two families. It was particularly interesting to me that each family thought the worst of each other, yet both were more than willing to do horrible things to their own people.

While my experience with magical realism is limited, I was immersed in The Weight of Feathers. McLemore created a world where magic ranges from practically mundane things like pairs of mermaid scales on skin or feathers hidden in hair to curses to radical transformations. It feels both surprising and expected at the same time thanks to being grounded by characters who worry about less fantastical things like fitting in, becoming an adult, stage makeup, family abandonment, abuse, and rape.

The Weight of Feathers has a few flaws—luckily, this book hit me at a time where I was in the mood for this style of prose. I imagine others will not be as thrilled, but that is something that can easily be found out by reading the preview chapters on Goodreads. Also, initially I was a little disappointed with the ending confrontation, but upon a second reading of the final chapters, I found myself far more satisfied with it.

Recommendation: Buy it now if you’re a fan of magical realism or star-crossed romances. While The Weight of Feathers isn’t perfect, it is a strong, engaging work that serves as a great introduction to magical realism. I look forward to future works by McLemore.

Extras
Where Our Magic Lives: A Queer Latina on Magical Realism at Diversity in YA

Magical Realism & Culture: Author Anna-Marie McLemore at YA Interrrobang

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Review: Never Always Sometimes

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Title: Never Always Sometimes
Author: Adi Alsaid
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Pages: 308
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
Review copy: Purchased by reviewer
Availability: On shelves now

Summary:

Never date your best friend.

Always be original.

Sometimes rules are meant to be broken.

Best friends Dave and Julia were determined to never be cliché high school kids—the ones who sit at the same lunch table every day, dissecting the drama from homeroom and plotting their campaigns for prom king and queen. They even wrote their own Never List of everything they vowed they’d never, ever do in high school.

Some of the rules have been easy to follow, like #5, never dye your hair a color of the rainbow, or #7, never hook up with a teacher. But Dave has a secret: he’s broken rule #8, never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school. It’s either that or break rule #10, never date your best friend. Dave has loved Julia for as long as he can remember.

Julia is beautiful, wild and impetuous. So when she suggests they do every Never on the list, Dave is happy to play along. He even dyes his hair an unfortunate shade of green. It starts as a joke, but then a funny thing happens: Dave and Julia discover that by skipping the clichés, they’ve actually been missing out on high school. And maybe even on love.

Review: As I started the book, I figured that I knew where it was going. I did anticipate many things accurately, but Alsaid managed to throw some curves in there. I appreciated that he mixed it up a little. The first part of the story is told from Dave’s perspective. I really enjoyed Dave as a character. He’s a nice guy and the comfortable friendship he has with Julia is appealing. They read each others’ silences, know each others’ quirks and have been best friends for years. They seem the picture of soulmates. The torture of being so close yet unable to profess his love, does have its downside though.

This seemed to be gearing up to be a fairly typical romantic comedy as Dave and Julia lightly hopped through their list of Nevers bantering along the way. Humor can be found in many places. Without giving too much away, I will just say there is even a poem that manages to make math sexy. The scene is more than a little bizarre, but definitely has comedic potential for readers.

The romance did not go the way I expected though. First, a third party became involved. Love triangles are not a favorite for me. Also, as the novel progressed, the story switched to Julia’s perspective. That was where I started to lose a little interest. Julia did not have my sympathy. Yes, Dave was a follower so maybe he should have shared the blame in my mind, but he just wasn’t as conceited as Julia. She started the Never list because she didn’t want to be like all those other high school students who were clichés. She looks down on nearly everyone in the school. As their relationship became increasingly complicated, I enjoyed the book less and less. I can’t go into the details of why without spoiling the book, but the second part of the book was not nearly as entertaining as the first. In addition, the conclusion made sense and felt right, but seemed rushed.

Recommendation:  If you like light romances, this might be something that you will want to get soon. It has humor and a romance with unexpected twists and turns. The twists may put you off though. Otherwise, for most readers, this is one I would recommend you borrow someday when you are looking for a bit of a laugh. It was fun, at least for the first part, and was a quick and easy read, but wasn’t particularly outstanding.

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