Review: Just One Day

Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Books. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Allyson Healey is on a trip to Europe, a special present from her parents for having done so well in high school. She, along with her best friend, are on a Teen Tour, speeding from one place to another.

A chance meeting with a young Dutch actor leads to an uncharacterstic for Allyson whirlwind day in Paris. When he disappears after they spend the night together, she is heartbroken, returning home to college.

College is not what Allyson had hoped it would be; or, rather, it’s more what her parents had planned than what Allyson wants.

What does Allyson want? As Allyson tries to figure that out, she realizes she needs to go back to her worst, and best, day ever and find out what really happened.

The Good: Allyson! Oh, Allyson. I cannot tell you how much I adored Allyson.

Why? Because she is so real: she is young, and immature, and unsure, and doesn’t realize it. As I read this, and saw just how distanced Allyson was from herself, it almost hurt in it’s truth and rawness.

Allyson may be a high school graduate, but she is one with parents so controlling that Allyson doesn’t realize she has never had the opportunity to be herself. To figure out who she is or what she wants. Part of it is because Allyson is an only child; part of it is because she has the ultimate helicopter parents; and part of it is because Allyson has always been the good daughter and doesn’t realize that this type of “good” isn’t doing anyone, including herself, any good.

Some examples: the unasked for gift of a trip to Europe. Allyson is grateful, of course; but it’s not anything she asked for, or said she wanted, or had any input in. Her parents have decided Allyson wants to be a doctor, so her college courses are selected by them to make that happen. Her mother sees clothes she thinks are perfect for Allyson and buys them for her.

And yes, Allyson is lucky and fortunate to have the opportunities, to have the things, but the one thing she doesn’t have? Is herself. The last day of her trip, that spontaneous day with Willem, was the first time she began to think of herself, of what she wants to do or likes.

When Allyson gets to college, it doesn’t go well. She doesn’t really make friends, she doesn’t do well in her classes, she doesn’t decorate her dorm room. Part of it is depression, part of it is being lonely, part of it is starting to realize that how her parents have defined her is not who she is — and for that last part, she doesn’t know it. She doesn’t know that is why she doesn’t decorate her dorm room with the things they have selected, why she cannot bring herself to care about the classes they have selected. Part of it is Willem’s rejection of her has hurt her deeply. Now at college, she doesn’t quite know how to connect or make a friend.

Thanks to a college counselor, who has seen other students like Allyson, Allyson begins to figure out who she is, what she likes, what she wants. I love this — a true “coming of age” book. It’s not crisp and clean and easy. Sometimes, when I’ve read one too many young adult books in a row, I wonder at just how many of these teen characters have their acts together when in “real life” the process of becoming oneself takes much longer. Just One Day takes a clearer, more honest, true look at that process.

Willem’s role in Allyson’s journey is important because his disappearance is part of what pushes her. It’s a puzzle to be solved; it’s a mystery to be answered; and, yes, it’s a person she wants to find because their connection was real and true. Or, at least, it was to her.

If you’re wondering why, in the age of Google, it was easy for Willem to disappear from Allyson’s life. She didn’t have a cell phone (or, rather, hers wasn’t working properly in Europe.) Willem early on gave Allyson a nickname, Lulu, and didn’t know her real name. Allyson didn’t know his last name. Allyson at first was too hurt and embarrassed by his leaving her to look for him. (I’m sure other reviews will go on and on about the love story here, but to me, the more fascinating story is Allyson’s own personal growth.)

What else? Allyson’s high school best friend, Mel, is similar to Allyson, except Mel is more deliberate and knowing in her own journey to figuring out who she is. It’s interesting to see Mel pop up every few months, to see what Mel is “trying on” in terms of hair and clothes and music. I also think most adults know, from the first time that Mel is introduced, that this is the type of high school friendship that probably won’t survive college.

Allyson’s mother. I tried really, really hard not to hate Allyson’s mother. It’s her mother, more than her father, who dictates Allyson’s choices. She’s doing it out of love, yes, but it turns out there is more than that. Enough for my hate to be softened with pity. Allyson’s grandmother — her mother’s mother — also shows up, during a holiday, and WOWZA. There are some real family dynamics here, and by “real” I mean people pushing each other’s buttons.

Because it’s a realistic look at how some teens experience their first year of college. Because, even when it was the Teen Tour, but more so when it was not,  I loved the parts where Allyson traveled. Because of who Allyson is becoming and her bravery in picking something other than the safe path of her parents’ expectations. For the friends she meets along the way. Because I love Allyson, in all her awkwardness and innocence, this is a Best Book Read in 2013.

I am also eager to read the sequel/companion book, Just One Year, which will be from Willem’s point of view. Since I view Willem as more of a necessary catalyst to Allyson’s growth than a love interest, I’m eager to see what that book will be like and how it may change my perception of Allyson.

Other reviews: Alexa Loves Books; Smash Attack Reads; Queen Ella Bee Reads; Stacked.

 

 

 

 

Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein. Hyperion. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Companion to Code Name Verity.

The Plot: It’s summer of 1944 and Rose Moyer Justice is in England, a pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.

She’s a pilot, and she’s an American, and she’s only 18, but she’s in the ATA because she’s been flying since she was 12 and her Uncle Roger, “high up in the Royal Engineers,” helped get her a place.

Rose thinks she’s seen the horrors of war. Her friend Celia Forester’s plan crashed, and she grieves. Her other friend Maddy has a war time wedding. Then there are the bombings and the destruction and the fear.

Thanks to Uncle Roger, Rose is flying in France, ferrying a plane back to England. That is when Rose is forced down by the Luftwaffe, captured by the Nazis, and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp.

Rose is about to discover what real horror is.

The Good: First things first: you don’t have to have read Code Name Verity to read Rose Under Fire. Rose’s friend Maddy is the Maddy from Code Name Verity, and a couple of other people appear, but in terms of plot, there is no connection. Since Rose Under Fire takes place after Code Name Verity, readers will be happy to see Maddy and find out how she’s doing, but the non-Code Name Verity reader won’t be confused.

Rose Under Fire is primarily told by Rose herself. First, in some journal entries from the summer of 1944. Then, there is a handful of correspondence from others that show that Rose is missing, presumed dead. Next, entries beginning in April 1945, with Rose in Paris, having escaped Ravensbruck. The jacket copy tells that Rose is sent to Ravensbruck – no spoiler there – and Rose Under Fire shows how Rose ended up in the concentration camp, what happened to her there, how she survived — and what she does to put her life together after.

Rose is eighteen, young, and prisoned in a place where she doesn’t even really know the language. She heard rumors about Nazi atrocities and dismissed them as propaganda. And, as she puts it, “I hadn’t seen evil. Or, if I had, I didn’t recognize it.” Another thing to know about Rose, in addition to being young, and an American. She gets angry. “I wasn’t upset. I was angry, as mad as I was about everything else.” She also loves poetry and writes some herself. Probably, the last important thing to know about Rose and how she survives: she’s lucky.

Rose is lucky, because she makes friends and connections that will help her survive. First is Elodie, a member of the French Resistance. Later, after Rose is brutally beaten, the “Rabbits” — the Polish women subjected to Nazi “medical” experimentation — befriend her. The reason? To learn English. To learn the poetry she recites. One, Roza, is even younger than Rose. Then there is Irina, a pilot in the Soviet Army, who gets paired up with Rose during a work detail because both are tall.

The Rabbits. I had been aware, in a vague words on paper way, of the Nazi medical experiments. When Rose gets to Ravensbruck, the experiments are over and scarred, mutilated women remain. They live, because in an odd way the current commander is afraid to kill them. It is after D-Day, and while the war in Europe is bloody and not yet over there is a vague fear that they may lose and will have to answer for their crimes. I say vague, because brutality and killings do continue.

Elodie, Roza, Irina. It is because of them that Rose lives. Rose doesn’t just take: no, she also gives, and there are people who live because of Rose’s own actions. When I talk about the friendships; or how other prisoners also tried to help the Rabbits, because of just how badly they were treated; I don’t want to make it sound the wrong way. Like it’s all selflessness and jolly good comradery. No. There is also harshness and cruelty, blood and death, mud and hunger, fear and desperation. For Rose and the others there are two types of survival: physical survival and mental survival. What does it mean, to be in a place like Ravensbruck?

What does it mean, to survive Ravensbruck? To live, after?

I don’t want to give too much away, because while this doesn’t have the type of twists and turns like Code Name Verity, I think that certain plot points are best discovered by the reader than told in a review.

I will say this: Rose Under Fire is as much about the time after Rose’s imprisonment as it is about the imprisonment itself. The final third of the story takes place in 1946 and is called Nuremberg.

Is this a Favorite Book Read in 2013? Yes! Because of how the story is told: Rose, safe in Paris, telling what happened to her. Rose, trying to figure out what “safe” is. Because of Rose. And Roza. And Irina. And the other women in Ravensbruck. And because while it didn’t break my heart in the way that Code Name Verity did, Rose under Fire was just as heartbreaking in its own way.

A brief P.S.: remember my post in January about characters in books getting their periods? Well, yes, Rose has to figure out what to do when in a concentration camp.

Other reviews: Dear Author; Good Books and Good Wine; See Michelle Read (a great discussion, but spoilers! Many spoilers!); The Book Smugglers.

Review: The Bitter Kingdom

The Bitter Kingdom by Rae Carson. Greenwillow Books, an imprint of HarperCollins. 2013. Conclusion of The Girl of Fire and Thorns trilogy: The Girl of Fire and Thorns (book one) and  The Crown of Embers (book two).

The Plot: Elisa, Godstone Bearer and Queen of Joya d’Arena, is running into the hand of her greatest enemy, the Invierne.

In Joya d’Arena, people have taken advantage of having a teeange Queen by seizing the country from her.

The Invierno, the enemy of Joya d’Arena, want Elisa — or, rather, her Godstone — and to make her come to them, they have taken Hector, Captain of the Royal Guard and the man Elisa loves.

Elisa travels with a small, trusted group: Belen, Mara, Storm (or, as Elisa describes them, “an assassin, a lady-in-waiting, and a failed sorcerer“).

All they have to do is rescue Hector; stop a war with Invierno; reclaim her throne; achieve peace for her country; and, oh, yeah — complete the act of service required by her Godstone, whatever that is.

It may be difficult; it may require sacrifice and tough choices; but this Elisa we’re talking about.

The Good: As I began The Bitter Kingdom I wondered, just how was Rae Carson going to wrap this up?

The thing to remember, of course, that this trilogy is about Elisa. It is about her journey, from protected child to strong queen. And what a journey! It is both physical — learning to fight, chasing down her enemies, running from others — and emotional. Learning to make the hard choices, including what is best for her country. And learning to find joy and happiness where she can get it.

Take Hector, her late husband’s good friend. Elisa was married to the king, a political alliance. She fell in love with a young man, and he was murdered. And now she has Hector. At the end of The Crown of Embers, Elisa had realized that marrying Hector would be a smart political move. Which means that The Bitter Kingdom includes their romance, which just gave me lots of smiles and happy.

Of course, it’s not all smiles and happy. But what is constant, for me, is the wonder that is Elisa. How strong she is, and brave. How much she has grown in three books.

As I said, this is Elisa’s story, so it is her adventure. She rescues and is rescued. She pushes herself as hard as she pushes anyone else, expects more from herself than others. She is also full of faith, and who wouldn’t be if they had evidence of God in the form of a godstone?

It is also the story of Invierno and Joya d’Arena, and their respective, battling origin myths that have led to centuries of hatred. Without giving too much away, I’ll say, I am still left with questions but in a good way. The “good way” being, I hope that Carson revisits this world, either in Elisa’s past or the future.

And, if like me, you want more, more, more now that the trilogy is over, semi-good news. There are two short e-novellas set in this world: The King’s Guard and The Shadow Cats. It’s only “semi” because that is “more” and “more” but not “more, more, more.” Yes, we readers ARE demanding.

Because The Bitter Kingdom is full of adventure. Because it has realistic politics. Because it’s about ages-old hurts that are hard to forgive and forget. Because I want to know more about the scientific and magical origins of this world. And because of Elisa. This is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Books With Bite; Magical Urban Fantasy Reads; Bookshelvers Anonymous.

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Boxers and Saints

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang. First Second. 2013. Review copy from publisher. Boxers & Saints, Volumes 1 & 2. Edited to add: National Book Awards shortlist

The Plot: The story of the Boxer Rebellion is told through the eyes of a Boxer and a Christian. Each volume is a standalone; but it’s best to first read Boxers, then Saints, and to read both.

The Good: For a discussion of the two volumes, go back to the reviews from earlier this week.

This, instead, will be about why two volumes? And how do they work together? Or, in other words, spoilers.

Boxers is the primary story: of how and why the Boxer Rebellion again, focusing on one young peasant, Bao, and what led him not only to rebel but also to commit atrocities. Since those actions make sense within the context of the rebellion (or, as some scholars say, uprising), it’s a bit of seduction of the reader, to have the reader at least understand Bao’s actions and, perhaps, even, to sympathize; or, even to think, that such acts were necessary.

As a young boy, Bao sees a young girl; later in Boxers, she shows up again, living with the Christians. It’s the eve of a Boxer attack. She has a bit of edge and an attitude.

In Saints, we learn Vibiana’s story: why she stands on the opposite of Bao, how they both love China, why Bao sees the foreigners and Christians as an enemy and why Vibiana sought Christianity and its fellowship. The two stories contrast shared purpose, different outcomes. Also, knowing what happens in Boxers, one knows what happens to both Vibiana and Bao. Except one doesn’t know, it turns out. There is a twist. Both books need to be read, Boxers first and Saints second, to understand the full story of Vibiana and Bao.

So, why Boxers and Saints? Why not just interweave these as two stories? Why not make it one volume?

To make this part of one story — telling a few pages of Bao, a few pages of Vibiana — would, I think, minimize the importance of both. Bao deserves his own book; so, too, does Vibiana; and this way, they both have it. Truth to tell, I think Vibiana’s story would not be as strong if it were interspersed with Bao’s.

It turns out, it’s not just Bao’s and Vibiana’s characters that meet: other people show up in both books, and offer different perspectives about what is or isn’t happening. But isn’t that history? Things that change depend upon perspective? One person’s hero is another’s murderer? What Yang accomplishes here, what is so terrific, is he manages to have the reader by sympathetic to both Bao’s and Vibiana’s beliefs. Yes, Bao — and other Chinese — are subject to humiliations and abuse because of the foreigners, and because of Christian missionaries. Yet switch to the missionaries and to the Chinese Christians and we see people asked, simply, to decide between life and faith. Everyday people, not the decision makers. (Boxers and Saints includes some of those policy makers, but it’s more about average people.)

Because Boxers and Saints shows that heroes, villains, and victims may overlap. For the artful storytelling that is as much about when a part of the story is told as it is about the whole. And, for Bao and Vibiana and China. These are Favorite Books Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants.

Review: The Infinite Moment of Us

The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle. Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams. 2013. Review from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It’s the summer after high school graduation.

Wren is a good girl, who has always done the right thing, especially when it comes to her parent’s expectations. Come fall, she’s supposed to be going to college and starting pre-med. But is what her parents want what Wren wants?

Charlie’s background is much less privileged than Wren’s. He tries to forget his past (the neglect and abuse) and instead focus on what he has now: a foster family who loves him. A safe place to call home. He, too, has college plans. Can he leave his past behind?

Wren and Charlie have been classmates for years, but it’s not until graduation that they connect and fall in love.

The Good: Looking for a book with love, romance, and angst? The Infinite Moment of Us is perfect.

Some spoilers here, but I promise, I’ll keep the mild. Wren and Charlie have sex. They have sex because they are high school graduates, and it’s the magic of summer, and they are in love and lust with each other and with the sheer wonder of being in love and being loved. The Infinite Moment of Us doesn’t fade to black when it happens. I’ve seen more than one review call this today’s Forever by Judy Blume, and I think it’s an apt shortcut to explain what The Infinite Moment of Us is about and the content.

I love how responsible Wren and Charlie are — they talk about birth control, for instance.

The Infinite Moment of Us, like Wren and Charlie themselves, is about more than sex. It’s about Wren, and Charlie, and how they try to work out what it means to be a couple.

Wren has a secret: not from us, or from Charlie. From her parents. She doesn’t want to start college in the fall. She wants time to find out who she is. She wants to take a gap year and volunteer with a program called Project Unity. More than want: Wren has already deferred admission to college by a year to participate in Project Unity.

Charlie’s secret is a bit more complex. Secret isn’t even the right word. Charlie’s past means that he is incredibly loyal to his foster family and friends. If something happens to his younger brother, or his ex-girlfriend texts, he is out the door to help them. Yes, I did say ex-girlfriend. Charlie doesn’t love her — is no longer involved with her — but emotionally, he is there for her as a friend. He was abandoned as a child and he will not abandon a friend.

See what is happening there? The conflict is both internal for both characters (Wren yearning to discover herself, Charlie wanting security) and external (Wren’s parents, Charlie’s ex) and the conflict is never a flaw in either of them. It’s natural, it’s organic, it’s understandable, and it’s not impossible.

I loved how The Infinite Moment of Us is about class, without being about class, and touching on possibly the last time that people from two such different backgrounds would share space and time. Wren and her friends Tessa and P.G. are fairly well off financially. P.G. may have the biggest house; but Wren has never had to work a part-time job. Wren is privileged, no doubt. I wouldn’t say she is spoiled, but she is often unaware of her privilege. And, yes, while a high school graduate she is still young in some ways. Wren has been protected — part of her yearning for Project Unity is she realizes this and wants to get beyond it and she fears going straight to college would be just more of high school.

Charlie is a foster child, now in a loving family, but not before. He still carries that, emotionally. His current family is wonderful, terrific, loving. They also don’t have much money. Charlie works, and has for a few years. Like Wren, he is smart. He’s going to college. But, because of his background, he doesn’t always fit with Wren. She’ll say something that to her is a joke, or expects shared knowledge, and Charlie doesn’t get it. I loved how The Infinite Moment of Us illustrates those subtle issues of class. It’s also there in how Wren doesn’t understand Charlie’s connections to his family and friends.

Speaking of class, Charlie’s ex, Starrla, could easily have been a caricature. Instead think Tara from Friday Night Lights, only without any support system to help her along. That’s Starrla. In a way, Charlie was lucky to have had such a bad mother, because he got out. Starrla is still stuck with hers. The girl has problems, problems that Charlie cannot fix — but there was just something about that girl that I rooted for her. I understood why Charlie wouldn’t just stop taking her calls. (As a matter of fact, Starrla fascinates me so much, and I am so worried about her, that I want her to have her own book.) Wren’s continuing lack of sympathy for Starrla illustrates just how removed Wren is from any background that is not her own.

And there is a shooting range. How many books have teens visiting a shooting range? And while it’s not that type of book, that The Infinite Moment of Us shows responsible gun ownership made me happy.

There is so much more I want to say. Like how I loved the resolution. And how Wren and Charlie are two good kids. I love books about good kids. And both are smart and kind. They aren’t perfect, but I also loved them for that, also. I loved how they were both also allowed to be immature at times because hello, both are still becoming who they will one do be. So, yes, it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Confessions of a Book Addict.

Review: Wise Young Fool

Wise Young Fool by Sean Beaudoin. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Ritchie Sudden is locked up for ninety days. He’s about to tell you why he got here. Well, eventually.

Ritchie is about to tell you about his senior year. And how he and his best friend, Elliot Hella, started a band.

And he’s going to tell you about the hottest girl in school, Ravenna Woods.

And maybe a bit about his Mom, and his Mom’s girlfriend, Looper.

But not Beth. At least, not yet.

It’s a boy, and a guitar, and music, and a band, and best friends.

And it’s about surviving those ninety days — and so, yes, Ritchie will let you know, eventually, why he’s in there. What happened.

But first, he’s going to tell you about the band. Every band needs a name, right? How does Sin Sistermouth sound?

OK, then. How about Wise Young Fool?

The Good: Loved, loved, loved Ritchie. The book begins at Progressive Progress, where Ritchie is serving his ninety days: “The air would taste like angst, except there is no air. The silence would sound like fear and pain, except there is no silence.” And then Ritchie is telling us about the day before senior year, when he and Elliot Hella went to buy Ritchie’s electric guitar, and, as Ritchie explains, “a band is dying to be born.”

And how, I wonder, did this great kid get from here to there, from point A to point locked up?

Ritchie is funny and smart. I’m sure his teachers have said, endlessly, that he doesn’t work up to his potential. Here, early on, Ritchie describing Elliot’s current, elderly stepfather: “Lawrence shrugs and nods, practically a living memory, a dream of tweed suits and chalkboards and differential equations, like Russell Crowe in that movie where he’s not a gladiator.” How can you not love Ritchie?

Sometimes, I forgot where Ritchie was. The ninety days. Instead, I got swept into Ritchie’s year of forming a band and deciding on a name (and oh, the endless band name debates!) I got pulled into the drama of Ritchie wanting one girl while hooking up with another and not quite knowing what to do next, except to ignore phone calls. (Let me add: while Ritchie is in love (or is it lust?) with one girl, and ends up sleeping with another because, well, she’s there, and this is always told from Ritchie’s point of view, both Ravenna and Lacy Duplais are fully formed characters, with their own wants and needs and story arcs that aren’t about Ritchie.) And I wondered about Beth, Ritchie’s older sister.

Beth is dead: and Beth’s death, and the aftermath, and what happened before are things that Ritchie reveals gradually. Let’s just say, his father took off and started a new family. And now his mother is with Looper. And Ritchie hates to drive. One of the things I loved about Wise Young Fool is how little, really, I ended up knowing about Beth, or Ritchie’s mom or dad. By the end, I knew more about Looper, his mom’s girlfriend, than any of Ritchie’s other family members. Why? Because, of course, Beth died. And it’s easier for Ritchie to talk with Looper, because she is part of his after-Beth life. Which reminds me of another thing I liked about Wise Young Fool: how little the adults mattered in the story, yet, still, were present and there. This is always Ritchie’s story, a story of a teenager learning to deal with a tremendous loss and still enjoying life, and friends, and music. Always, the music.

A quick note about the names: in addition to the dual-story going on (Ritchie serving his time, and Ritchie’s senior year that led up to his serving time) this is also structured as a “found manuscript” : “Three years ago, a very curious manuscript was turned in to our offices. . . .  we have still found no trace of the town, friends, or high school Ritchie refers to below.” While it’s an interesting thing to bring into a book discussion, it also tells the reader to look at Ritchie’s humor and wordplay in the names he gives his friends, family and town. Even Ritchie’s own name, “Ritchie Sudden” (rich sudden? suddenly rich?), his friend El Hella; a teacher is called Miss Menepausse; his home town is Sackville, just to point out a few.

Because even though I haven’t been in a band, and have no musical talent whatsoever, yet got what music meant to Ritchie, and what that band meant to him. Because Ritchie was so awesome. Because Ravenna and Lacy have full stories, even though this is always Ritchie’s own. Because Looper and his Mom is an awesome couple. Wise Young Fool is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews and links: Wise Young Fool Trailer; Bewitched Bookworms.

 

Review: The Lucy Variations

The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr. Little, Brown. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Eight months ago, Lucy Beck-Moreau stopped playing the piano.

Teens do that all the time, right?

Except Lucy Beck-Moreau, 16, isn’t your typical teen. She was a concert pianist, who was in Prague for a major event when she decided “no more.” No more traveling, or practicing; no more private lessons; no more recordings; no more playing the piano.

Instead, she’s going to school like a regular teen, hanging out with her friends Reyna and Carson.

At home, her equally talented younger brother continues his lessons, showcases, and competitions, doing what Lucy did at age ten.

Eight months have passed, and Lucy begins to think about playing again. But what would that mean? Her grandfather believes there is only one right way to play: to be your best and do your best by competing on the national stage. If you’re not that level, why bother?

What does Lucy want to do?

The Good: Oh, Lucy. She’s the type of character I love because she is so real. She quit rather dramatically and her family reacted equally dramatically, with everyone being very “so you don’t want to play, FINE, that means never playing again, FINE” and retreating to their different corners.

Lucy’s family is rich. Very rich. Rich enough to have private tutors, both for piano and for school, and to travel to all those competitions and showcases. I love how Zarr can write books set in different socioeconomic settings and for each one, it feels real and accurate. Lucy is rich, and has creature comforts, and yes, a certain level of indulgence, but she isn’t spoiled or annoying. Probably because one thing The Lucy Variations is clear about: the amount of work and sacrifice that playing piano at her level takes.

I don’t know anything about playing the piano. Never had lessons; we never had a piano. It doesn’t matter; I understood what Lucy saw in music and playing and that is what matters. I also liked how Lucy liked, well, being “that” Lucy and wasn’t always sure how to handle that. “It could be hard to find the line between sharing credentials in an effort to fit and showing off.” And later, “she did like that part. Being somebody. Even if it meant certain people were jealous or thought she was too young to get the attention she did. . . . But in places like this, she knew she mattered.”

So, that’s the obvious story: teen quits playing piano and has to figure out whether piano, and music, will be a part of her future and what that future will look like. With a side of some delicious family dynamics: equally talented younger brother; rich, controlling, gruff grandfather; a less-talented mother devoted to her children’s success and her father’s dreams; and a non-musical father who is a bit of an outsider in his own family. “Decisions were made the usual way, Grandpa Beck steamrolling over everyone, aided by her mother, her dad standing off to the side letting the whole thing happen.”

But. But. But. Yes, that is great and wonderful but there is something else going on here. A look at a young woman and sexuality that is nuanced. And I don’t mean sex.

See, Lucy has this habit. She gets crushes on male authority figures. At the start of The Lucy Variations it is her English teacher; as the story moves on, it shifts to her younger brother’s piano tutor, Will. Her reasons are complex, and while a friend makes an observation about why Lucy does this, it’s also left up to the reader to decide. Lucy has always been in situations where she requires adult level approval (with teachers, with audiences, with judges) so that transfers, a bit, to how she views teachers and other authority figures. She’s also been around adults more than her peers, so has a natural affinity for being around adults. I could also argue that the combination of domineering grandfather and removed father has to do with her seeking approval and acceptance from these older men. There is also something to be said for Lucy picking “safe” men for the object of her affections: older, authority figures, sometimes married (and in the past, gay). She can explore the feelings and emotions but part of her always has to know that nothing will happen. Frustrating, perhaps? But also safe because she never has to deal with the reality of a relationship.

Lucy is a great mix of young and old, like many teens. I’ll try to minimize spoilers. But Mr. Charles, her English teacher, illustrates how a good teacher handles these types of crushes, struggling for the balance between being an appropriate mentor and teacher, and yet keeping the necessary distance and lines. In other words, he realizes at all times that Lucy’s emotions are real and fragile and to be respected, yet, at the same time, they are the feelings of a young teenager who is his student. He knows it’s not about him. It’s great that Lucy is allowed her feelings and her wants, but it’s safe because, bluntly, Mr. Charles is a grown up who is not about to fool around with a sixteen year old just because they “like” him.

Will is the tutor for Lucy’s brother. And here is another interesting character and relationship study. Gus views any type of relationship between Will and Lucy as a betrayal, because Will is his teacher. Yet, Lucy is exploring returning to music, Will respects that, and a friendship develops between Will and Lucy. If you’re a grown up reading this book, alarms go off, and with good cause. (Though, this is not “that” type of book.) Lucy denies wanting to hurt her brother, or to compete with him, but she doesn’t put the brakes on her friendship with Will. And is Will encouraging Lucy, or leading her on? Lucy knows what she’s doing, yet doesn’t know. When her friend Reyna confronts her on whatever it is that is happening with Will, Lucy denies it, but at the same time, Lucy does know she wants more from Will than the texts they are exchanging.

I can see I’m doing that being wordy thing where I just love how Lucy’s emotions are explored and respected, and so want to go on and on about it, so I’ll stop now. And just add, that Lucy’s relationships alone would be reason to make this a Favorite Book Read in 2013. The other reasons: Lucy’s family. Lucy’s own feelings towards music, and why she quit. And Lucy trying to determine just who she is, and what makes her happy, it’s just terrific. And the resolution, which is the best kind of ending that is actually a beginning.

Other reviews: Slatebreakers; Stacked; The New York Times; Interview at Stacked; Zarr’s Guest Post at the Kindle Blog.

Review: Uses for Boys

Uses for Boys by Erica Lorraine Scheidt. St. Martin’s Griffin. 2013.

The Plot: Slut.

That’s the word thrown at Anna. Cutting as a knife. Creating a barrier between herself and the world. Except for the boys.

Desmond, Joey, Todd, and the others.

Yes, they take something, but they also give her something she needs. Warmth; attention; love; a story, a story with Anna being the important one. The one who is needed and wanted.

The Good: I loved this book so, so much.

Uses For Boys is not an easy book; it is not a pretty book. This is a deceptively short and brief book: Anna is telling a story, yes, but she tells what she wants to tell.

Anna, so alone and lonely, an odd little child at the start, holding onto a half-invented past when it was only Anna and her mother, and they only needed each other. Anna looks at that point in the past, to herself at age seven, as almost a golden age of her life: “In the happy times, in the tell-me-again times, when I’m seven and there are no stepbrothers and it’s before the stepfathers, my mom lets me sleep in her bed.”

With each marriage, Anna and her mother move into a bigger and better home, until finally it’s just the two of them in the latest house. Her mother is the sort who needs a man in her life, and she is often away with her latest boyfriend, leaving Anna alone.

Anna, so alone and lonely with walls she doesn’t even know she has. I wonder, how, at thirteen, Desmond saw the need in her, saw her weakness, and zeroed in on her as the girl to sit next to on the bus, to without invitation put his hand on her breast and then guide her hand to his pants. Here’s the thing: Desmond is a creep. Anna is passive. But Anna also physically likes what is happening to her body when it is touched: the warmth, the feelings, the sense of connection. She doesn’t say no; she doesn’t say yes; she hopes it happens again.

Anna paints pictures in her head, telling herself stories, making the encounter more than what it was. She has long conversations in her head, shaping what happened, explaining, to herself, rehearsing words she never shares with others.

Her stories don’t come true. Desmond ignores her, and now she is the “slut” who loses the only friend she has.

Anna, alone and lonely and neglected. Now she is fourteen, and the second boy is Joey, and she connects with him the only way she knows about connecting with boys. Wanting emotional intimacy, she uses physical intimacy to get it. And yet: I do not see Anna as a victim here. She initiates it, in part because it feels good. “When he kisses me, I feel important. Like I’m everything to him. Sometimes everything happy bubbles up and I want to be chased around the house.” Quite simply, “I like the way he makes me feel.” But Joey leaves, to go live with his father.

Next is Todd. She is at a party and she thinks she may be attracted to him. Instead, he rapes her, and that is also complicated and messy and nuanced because she had liked him and she wants her stories to go a certain way. A way where she is not a victim, where she is not alone, where she is wanted.

Finally, Anna makes a female friend who doesn’t judge her: Toy. Toy who has her own boyfriends, and as she talks about them to Anna, Anna feels jealous that the boys in her life don’t live up to those in Toy’s life. These two bond over more than talking about boys: the actually connect at Goodwill, looking for clothes, Anna thinking that she can create a new persona based on finding the right clothes. The right jeans and a striped shirt; the right retro dress and Converse sneakers. They are both daughters of single mothers, and their friendship is one of the bright spots in Anna’s life even though she often thinks how her stories, her boys, aren’t as good as Toy’s.

Next is Josh. Anna is now sixteen.  She meets Josh and the next thing we hear her telling her mother she is moving in with him and for a second, because of the jump in time, because I’ve seen how Anna tells stories to shape her reality, I wondered whether Josh had indeed asked her.  But no, it’s true, and she shapes her life to be the narrative she wants: a girl with a boy, wanted by a boy, working at a job, having a cozy nest together. Anna drops out of school, moves in with Josh, saves the money from her coffee shop job.

At one point, later in the story, she thinks, “I look like the girl I imagined I’d be.” Except, at least in this telling, all the imaginings area about the boys.

OK, spoilers — because this is one of the books that I have to talk about whole. Of course, her time with Josh turns out to not be the story she’d imagined in her head. Josh is a decent sort, yes, but he is not her answer.

Anna finds her own place, a small shabby studio apartment. She also finds a new boyfriend, Sam, who is so Perfect he’s out of central casting: his parents are still married to each other, he has an older brother and a younger sister. There are home made dinners. They welcome Anna.

The back cover says Anna “finally learns how it feels to have something to lose — and something to offer.” I see it slightly different. With Sam, with his family, for the first time Anna sees a functional family unit. (More on that below). I think she falls in love with his family more than Sam. Early in their relationship, after barely a date, Sam is gone, Anna is lonely, and she meets that need the way she always has: she meets a boy. They have sex. Later on, another crisis occurs in her relationship with Sam and she also is betrayed by Toy and she begins to do what she has always done: meet a boy to feel better.

Except, this time, Anna doesn’t have sex with him.

It’s not because Sam has “saved” her. It’s not because Anna has decided “oh no that is slutty” or any other such shallow reason. It’s because she doesn’t need to. She doesn’t need to create stories to feel something, to feel important. She doesn’t need to use him.

Anna has realized truths about herself, and the stories she tells herself, and the stories Toy tells herself.

Anna realizes the truth is she can change her own story. And not in a, “with this boy it will be different” way, and not in a “if a boy is in this story, I matter” way. Instead, Anna realizes her life is her own story, and it can be what she wants it to be, and not what others want. She’s important because she is Anna; and while she doesn’t have the family Sam has, she doesn’t have to keep looking for that belonging in boys. She can create her own family from the people in her life: yes, Sam and his family, but also her mother and Toy.

As you can see, I just adored this book. There are some things that made me go “huh,” in part because Anna’s narrative is very Anna-focused. I am not sure about her mother’s age or name or job. I wondered at how much of what Anna said I could believe; is her mother really this neglectful, leaving her daughter for such long periods of time?

Given how pro-female-sexuality this book is, (and while Anna’s motives for sex were sometimes based on wanting to fill an emotional void, it was also sometimes just because she liked sex) I also went “huh” over the contrast between single/divorced families (all dysfunctional) and traditionally married couples (all awesome). But I think Anna was beginning to grasp that things were not as she thought towards the end of the book: she thinks of her mother and for the first time realizes “how much is missing from [her] story.” Maybe her mother is not so awful as she appears to be.

The time period of the book is uncertain. Anna’s telling was often dream like, skipping sections or details. Given the lack of mobile phones or computers, and the use of pay phones, and some of the fashion references, I’d say it’s set in the 80s but it could just as easily be set now.

I’m marking this down as a Favorite Book Read in 2013, because of Anna. Because Uses For Boys has a terrific ending, even if it’s not easy and doesn’t give tidy answers. Because (as you can see from some of the reviews, below) it has created quite a stir about what it means to be a “slut” and what it means to be a teenage girl who has sex.

Other reviews: StackedThe Rejectionist about the book and an author interview; Wrapped Up in Books.

Review: Fuse

Fuse: Book 2 of the Pure Trilogy by Julianna Baggott. Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group. 2013. Review copy from conference. Sequel to Pure. Part of my “vacation reads,” books for adults to read during their vacation — hey, it’s summer vacation! Also, this is a sequel to an Alex Award winner; and just like Pure, there is plenty of teen appeal. Spoilers for Pure.

The Plot: Fuse takes up right after the events of Pure. To recap, it’s nine years after the Detonations, a world-wide series of nuclear explosions. “Pures” survived, unscathed, in a protected Dome ruled by controlling dictator; wretches outside where burnt and fused and scarred by both the Detonations and the world that resulted.

In Pure, a group of teens from both inside and outside the Dome came together, put aside prejudices and preconceptions to start trusting each other to try to make a difference in their world.

In Fuse, those efforts are interrupted when Partridge, 18, a Pure, discovers that his father (leader in the Dome) will not let me go. His father takes a small child, a wretch, and “cures” her, returning her back to the world to tell his message: “This girl is proof that we can save you all. If you ignore our plea, we will kill our hostages one at a time.” Why is his father so desperate to recover his son?

As Partridge and Lyda, another Pure, try to figure out whether to return to the Dome, those from outside the Dome — Pressia, Bradwell, El Capitan, Helmud — race to try to uncover the secrets of Partridge’s father, Ellery Willux. They already know that he engineered the Detonations, that he is a cruel and evil man who is also brilliant and manipulative. Willux is not brilliant enough: his “cure” is imperfect. Part of the answers that Pressia and the others seek is the complete, real cure.

In a destroyed, dangerous world, Partridge, Pressia, and their friends rush to find answers and to create a better future.

The Good: Guys, it was tough to try to describe that plot!

At this point, let’s assume that you have either read Pure or don’t care about spoilers.

Baggott has created a stunning dystopia, both inside and outside the Dome. Even before the Detonations went off, the world was ours but not-ours. Similar historical events and geography, but the names are just a bit off kilter and the pre-Detonation politics and society such that it’s not quite our world before. I’d go so far as to say that the government at the time of the Detonation was a dystopia. Those are the type of world-building details that I really, really like.

Inside the Dome, Willux has created his idea of a perfect world. Everyone knows their place, especially women. People are re-engineered to make them better. Partridge escaped this world, but he also wants to return there to save it. It’s his home, his friends, and it’s safer than life outside the Dome. Lyda, another former Dome inhabitant, views the Dome differently. She was not the privileged (albeit neglected) son of the Leader. She loves Patridge, but she doesn’t want to  return to the Dome.

Why?

“[Lyda] doesn’t despise her old self as much as she fears her. Her trapped life was so comfortable that she’d still be in it if she’d been allowed a choice. If her old self had been told that she would one day find herself out here, living among the wretches, she would have pitied her new self. But she’s lucky she got out.” You know what I love about this, aside from the obvious? That it’s also a metaphor for growing up. Childhood is comfortable, a place one would want to stay, but once one has independence, and growth, once one is an adult — how lucky one is! Yes, Lyda has to worry about food and clothes and safety now that she’s left the Dome, but it’s a much better place to be.

Outside of the Dome, life is dangerous and cruel, but it can also be beautiful in its honesty. Pressia, Bradwell, El Capitan and Helmud do not so much want to enter the Dome and be “saved” as to create a safer, better world for everyone outside the Dome.

How unsafe is their world? Each of them was scarred by the Detonations, forever fused to what they were near: Pressia’s hand is a doll, Bradwell’s back contains birds, brothers El Capitan and Helmud are fused together. Children born afterwards are not “Pure,” because the damage done to DNA. It’s not just that their DNA has been altered and society destroyed. It’s a world with cruel, hungry beasts that may have some human in them; even the ground cannot be trusted to be safe. (No, really, there are — things — that live in the ground and can eat you.) Food and water outside the Dome are hard to come by. The technology, the resources, the medicine in the Dome could make the outside world better; and the daily bravery of those outside are something those inside need to see.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Those scarred outside can be scarred inside. El Capitan is on a journey to changing from a hardened military man to a caring young man; while part of the paramilitary he made some brutal choices. His name still causes fear. “Mothers” — women from a suburb who were fused to their children — are now fierce warriors who call all men “Deaths,” blaming them for what the world now is. Lyda they welcome and protect; Partridge they look at with suspicion. (There is also some humor; the Mothers battle the Basement Boys, teenage slackers who fused with video game controllers. Weapon of choice? Lawn Darts.)

In addition to the world building, I just love these characters. Pressia discovered that her life is a lie: her grandfather was not her grandfather, but rather a kind man who saved her and took her in and named her after the Detonations. She had a different name and a different life; she is Partridge’s half sister. She wants to know her past and her self, the parts she forgot; she wants a real hand; and she fights the feelings she has for Bradwell.

Bradwell’s parents were involved in fighting Willux even before the Detonations, so his motivations for seeking answers are different from Pressia’s. He is driven, but in different ways, and I love the half-dance of falling in love these two engage in as they try to survive the world and make things better.

Partridge could easily be dismissed because his life has been, well, soft and easy, but the hard truths he’s learned — especially about how monstrous his father is — has toughened him a bit. (And how’s that for teen appeal! The parent you think is a monster IS a monster!)

Lyda, as mentioned above, is finding herself in the freedom of life outside the Dome.

But El Capitan! Cap is, hands down, my favorite. In Pure, he began as one of the bad guys, but only because, like the others, he was an orphaned teen doing his best to survive. He also had Helmud, his brother, permanently attached, who he had to take care of. Before he meets Pressia and the others, surviving means doing some brutal things. By the events of Fuse, Cap has changed. He’s still tough, but he’s become more compassionate, in part because he has expanded his world of people to care about beyond his brother.

Plot wise, Fuse early on separated the group, so while their is a common, shared goal, everyone ends up in a different circumstances, working towards that end. I won’t give the details, so will avoid sharing the cliffhangers and reveals, but there is lot of action and danger!

So, Fuse (like Pure) is a Favorite Book Read in 2013. And I cannot wait till 2014, when the third and final book, Burn, comes out!

Links to reviews: Rhapsody in Books; Beth Fish Reads; Interview at Caroline Leavitt; BookReporter.

Review: Dark Triumph

Dark Triumph: His Fair Assassins, Book II by Robin LaFevers. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: Nantes, Brittany, 1489.

Lady Sybella is deep in danger and intrigue. Part of it is because she has been trained by the convent of Saint Mortain to be an assassin.

Part of it is because her current assignment means she is living in the household of the nobleman d’Albret, a cruel, vicious, power-hungry man who is intent on capturing Anne, Duchess of Brittany, and forcing her into marriage so he can control her lands and her money. She is working on the side of the supporters of the duchess, and risks all to signal to the duchess’s troops that d’Albret is about to attack.

It is a dangerous place to be: if d’Albret discovers what she has done he will have her killed.

Lady Sybella is playing a dangerous game, but she knew that when she received this assignment. She accepted it, hoping that it would give her the chance to kill d’Albret.

Why?

D’Albret is her father. And no one knows better how much the man deserves to die.

The Good: This is a companion/sequel to Grave Mercy. Grave Mercy was about Ismae, another teenaged nun assassin sent out to under orders of the convent to help protect the young duchess and Brittany. Dark Triumph is about one of Ismae’s friends; and the next book, Mortal Heart, will be about a third friend, Annith. The events in Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph overlap, against two larger stories: the politics and battles of sixteenth century Brittany; and the mystery of Mortain.

“Saint Mortain” is the church taking an old god, the God of Death; and as first Ismae and then Sybella discover, Mortain is no myth. He is real, and he is their father. As daughters of Mortain — true daughters — their skills are not just the training in knives and death and poison that the nuns have provided. Sybella can sense people around her, feel their heartbeats; and she also can see the marque, a physical sign that only his daughters can see, that show a person is marked for death by an assassin. She (like Ismae before her) discovers that while the convent’s purpose is to serve Mortain, the nuns may not know everything about Mortain.

I adored Sybella! She is quite the different character than Ismae, who was a peasant girl rescued by the convent. Sybella is instead a noble woman, but that money did not protect her from the darkness within his father and the poison within his household. As Sybella herself says, “I did not arrive at the convent of Saint Mortain some green stripling. By the time I was sent there, my death count numbered three, and I had had two lovers besides.” Sybella is tough and hard; she plays the game; she does what she has to do.

And yet — Sybella has a softer side, one that she hides to the world. She has managed to get her two younger sisters away from her father’s household, so they are protected in a way she was not. When she discovers a maid has brought her younger sister to work, she arranges to help the girls escape, knowing the risks to the two young girls. That Sybella is so intent on protecting these younger girls should be a clue to some of what Sybella herself has been subject to.

Sybella helps an important prisoner escape, a powerful knight nicknamed “Beast.” He is wounded and she finds herself escaping with him. During that flight, Sybella is, perhaps for the first time in her life, beholden to no one: not to her father, not to her the convent. Oh, yes, she still has to make sure Beast gets safely to the duchess, and she is hardly alone — but she is not in the convent being told what to do. She is not in her father’s house, playing a role.

I loved, loved, loved that Sybella rescues Beast. She does not need rescuing; she can take care of herself; she can fight. I love that Beast likes Sybella’s toughness, but also that what she does, she does well, and she enjoys it. In short: he respects her. Yes, as they are fleeing the countryside, hiding from d’Albret’s forces and the French, there is tons of action and adventure, but there is also a growing bond between Beast and Sybella. A bond, an attraction, that Sybella knows can come to nothing because she is a daughter of Mortain, and she has dark secrets — heck, she hasn’t even been honest with Beast that she is d’Albret’s daughter.

So, yes, I loved the Sybella and Beast romance. Because it’s between equals, and it’s about respect, and it’s about admiration, and it’s about — well. I don’t want to give anything away. But it’s also about people being human, and accepting that in others. (That may be code for, among other things, Beast not caring that Sybella isn’t a virgin.)

Oh, and by Sybella “enjoys it”: it’s not that she enjoys killing people. She enjoys that she does something well. And she knows, thanks to the marque and her service to Mortain, and her own fierce moral code, that she is not killing innocents. The marque tells her people are fated to be dead at her hand; the truth she learns about Mortain, as well as her moral code, means she isn’t killing for pleasure. She’s killing when necessary, to protect those she loves and those she is loyal to. And she enjoys that she can do that: protect and defend.

And I also love how Sybella is not a victim. Some pretty terrible things have happened in her life; a few things shocked me. She’s been hurt, and that means she has scars and trust issues. But — she is not a victim. She’s a survivor.

As I mentioned, a third book is coming next year. Ismae made cameos in this story, so I’m sure Ismae and Sybella will appear, but Sybella’s journey and growth are complete in this volume. What remains open, to be resolved, are the future of Brittany and the role of Mortain. As I sad in my review of Grave Mercy, this is a time period and a place I knew very little about and I loved learning more about it. I’m really curious as to how this is all going to get resolved!

Don’t bother counting the “loves”; the answer is yes, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2013.

Other reviews: Stacked; Reading Rants; Wrapped in Books.