Review: Obsidian Mirror

Obsidian Mirror by Catherine Fisher. Dial Books for Younger Readers, a member of Penguin Group. 2013. Library copy.

The Plot: Time travel with a magical mirror.

You want more?

There are also the Shee. You know, the cold blooded not-human beings of legend who steal human children and never really age.

You want more?

A present-day boy searching for his father and a future girl looking for a way to save her world.

Did I mention the time travel?

The Good: Did I mention the time travel?

Jake Wilde has deliberately gotten himself expelled from boarding school and sent to Wintercombe Abbey, the home of his enigmatic guardian, Oberon Venn. A teacher is his reluctant guardian on the trip home, but no worries there. It’s Venn’s home, not Jake’s. And Jake has no intention of running away. He wants to confront Venn, convinced Venn has murdered Jake’s father.

Sarah is running. The Replicant is chasing her. She is alone, running, determined. She has a goal: Wintercombe Abbey. And she has a mission. Wintercombe Abbey is familiar, even though it’s not the place she remembers. She talks herself into a job so she can stay and find what she seeks.

Oberon Venn is surprised to see Jake. And when Sarah shows up, he isn’t sure who she is but he thinks he can use her. Oberon Venn is, you see, a man with a mission. His beloved wife is dead. So what to do? Find a way to travel through time to prevent it from happening. Jake’s father, Venn’s loyal friend, was involved.

I don’t want to give too much away about these overlapping stories —  but I really loved how it wove together. Not only is Venn researching time travel, using the Obsidian Mirror, but Sarah has traveled through time to stop him. While she is vague about sharing the details of her own dystopian future, one thing is clear: the cause is the mirror. Destroy the mirror, save the world. So, as you can see, Jake, Venn, and Sarah have competing interests. Jake, to find his father; Venn, to change the past and save his wife; Sarah, to change the future. Not only are there interests in conflict with each other, no one quite knows all the secrets to the Mirror and how it works. So it’s not as simple as finding the Mirror. It’s not as simple as possessing the Mirror.

As you can imagine, this means that there are peaks at Sarah’s future; Jake’s present; and a trip or two to the past as Venn tries to control the mirror.

But wait, you ask, what about the Shee?

All of this time travel stuff — what you might call the science fantasy aspect of the book — is played out against what is happening on the grounds of Wintercombe Abbey. A place where the Shee live, including the Queen of the Wood, and an ageless (or only slowly aging) human, Gideon — a child taken hundreds of years ago. Venn is aware of them; knows about them; and I loved this odd mash up of genre and expectation.

Oh, and trust me: it may seem that I have given too much away. Trust me, I have not. There is still plenty of reveals and plot twists for you to uncover on your own. There is the Scarred Man! And Mortimer Dee! And Moll! My favorite may be Moll.

The Obsidian Mirror has a sequel, The Slanted Worlds, coming out in March.

Other reviews:  Forever Young Adult; The New York Times; The Book Smugglers.


Review: The Ruining

The Ruining by Anna Collomore. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Group USA. 2013. Reviewed from ARC.

The Plot: Annie wants only one thing: Escape.

She wants to leave Detroit behind her, leave the poverty, her neglectful mother, leering stepfather, dead sister. She wants to start anew. She wants to be a new person.

Annie seizes on college as her way of escape: San Francisco State University. Far away from home, from anyone she knows, she can have a second chance and leave her secrets behind. Especially how she is responsible for the death of her sister.

College costs money, so Annie gets a job as a nanny for the wealthy Cohen family. She sees the photo of mother, father, toddler daughter and infant son and she admires that perfection. She wants that perfection.

Annie will be the best nanny, ever, in order to stay with this beautiful family in their welcoming mansion in sunny California.

Her life is a perfect, a dream come true, down to the handsome boy next door.

And then Annie’s dream turns into a nightmare, and she doesn’t know what to believe anymore. Mrs. Cohen — Libby — runs hot and cold. Annie gets mixed messages. Is Annie an employee, a younger sister, a trusted friend? Why has the door been removed from her room? What are the mysterious documents in the garage? Why does Libby favor her baby, Jackson, and ignore young Zoe? Why does Libby sometimes call her “Nanny” not “Annie”?

There’s something not quite right going on in the Cohen household, but really, what does Annie know? She’s new to the house and family. She’s from a different class of people. Maybe this is just the way rich people are, maybe this is just the way a nanny gets treated.

What does Annie know? Is she imagining things? Is something wrong with Annie….or is something wrong with the Cohens?

The Good: This is one of the “OK, I have to discuss it so there will be spoilers, OK, deal with it” reviews. Not quite yet; I won’t start for a few paragraphs.

This is a psychological thriller where a young nanny gets gaslighted by her employer and struggles to hold onto her sanity and reveal the truth about her employer.

Or, is it?

Annie goes from poverty to wealth beyond her dreams. Except, well, she doesn’t — she’s the nanny. And the first intriguing thing about The Ruining is the examination of the nanny/employer relationship. Perhaps because I’m an adult reader (and I like to do that — to identify what I see in a book as an adult reading a book intended for teens) but one of the first things I saw in The Ruining that gave me pause from the start was the blurry lines between Annie and the Cohens. Or, rather, Annie and Libby.

At the start, Annie says “In California, I would reinvent myself. I would finally have the life I deserved.” Yet that life, at first, is not really her life she’s reinventing. Rather, she’s fitting herself into the life of the Cohens, and it’s their life she wants. Once in California, she doesn’t reinvent herself by applying herself to the area that is “her life,” that is, to college and her studies. Instead, it’s the house and food and luxuries of  Cohes.  This blurring is not one-sided: Libby gives Annie a glass of wine, gives her some of her old clothes, goes through her college course catalog telling Annie what classes to take.

Libby treats Annie almost as a younger sister and Annie drinks that in, wanting more. Libby is a dream come true, so of course it goes wrong.

But here’s the thing: does it?

In other words: just how crazy is Annie?

The Ruining can be read in two ways:

In one, Libby Cohen is a troubled woman who hires Annie because she realizes Annie’s background will make Annie easy to manipulate. Annie’s secret? Annie’s younger sister drowned when Annie was supposed to be watching her. That, and Annie’s fear of returning to Detroit, make her susceptible to Libby’s manipulations. In this reading, Libby gaslights Annie — pushes her buttons — drives her crazy, with Annie ending up in a mental institute. Luckily, the handsome next door neighbor believes in Annie and uncovers Libby’s dark secrets, freeing Annie, and in the end Annie and he are happily living together.

In the other, Annie is a troubled young woman who projects her fears and demons onto Libby. Almost nothing Annie says about Libby can be entirely trusted. Anything Annie says is suspect. Is handsome Owen someone Annie is even involved with? Does he come to rescue her?

And the spoilers start now, because I want to talk about which one of these readings works for me. So if you haven’t read it, be warned.

Be further warned: part of the reason I’m being so spoilery, and so detailed, is that most of the reviews I’ve read take the view of the first reading

Me, I believe that Annie cannot be trusted. Not one bit. Part of why is she tells us not to: “I needed a clean break from my reality.”

Part of it — and this is my bias — there were things that Annie did as a nanny that made me think, “huh.” She notes how she grabs a tote bag from under the kitchen sink to use as a bag for her college books, and nothing said she had permission to do it. She’s given the family car to run an errand and instead takes a lot of time driving around San Francisco. When she packs a gourmet style picnic lunch for the boy next door, I wondered what the Cohens thought when they went to look for the food. These are little things, but little things early on that shows that Annie is from the start thinking “family” not “employer.” Now, some would point to things that what the Cohens did are just as odd — Annie is supposed to be working less than 30 hours a week, but it seems much more. It also seems like she needs to be on call 24/7, even being available on her day off. And, of course, the Cohens as the rich employers have all the power. Still, while I raised an eyebrow or two at what Libby did or didn’t do, I also felt that Annie was just as inappropriate in the relationship.

Annie clearly adores Zoe. She pains herself as a super-nanny. And yet, she uses Zoe to connect with the boy next door, playing outside to “entice Owen out.” Admittedly, even this is murky — did Annie do it, or did she do it because Libby sort of suggested it in a “I hope this isn’t why you want to play outside with Zoe” way? While watching Zoe and flirting with Owen, she gets angry at things Owen says and curses in front of Zoe. Yes, that gave me pause. Also (and sorry, another bias!) when Owen and his parents are over for dinner, and Owen, Zoe, and Annie are alone, Annie’s clear focus is on Owen, not Zoe. This, though, is another example of the blurriness of the whole nanny situation. Is Annie a guest at the diner party, with the Cohens taking advantage by having her watch Zoe? Or is Annie a nanny during the party, ignoring her responsibility to flirt with Owen?

To share just a small bit of how Annie sees the world, here is Annie describing her doctor, someone who she has said only a little older looking than Libby, who is in her early twenties. “He looked like the kind of man whose ambitions had never been connected to the reality he now lived.” Which, first, I love because I can so easily picture such a person. Second, that’s a pretty harsh judgment for Annie to be making on someone who is, by her description, less than thirty. Finally, though, I wonder if it’s Annie herself she’s describing, as someone not connected to her own reality.

Back to Owen, briefly. I’m not sure if he’s made up, entirely; but I do know if he is real (and if the version of Libby as evil manipulator is real) then Owen is not a nice guy. (Spoilers, again, but I’ve read reviews swooning over him!) Here’s the thing: Owen is college age. And when he plays foosball against Zoe, a three year old? He doesn’t let her win. Not once. NOT ONCE. Again, maybe it’s because I’m old, but — no. That’s not the sign of a nice guy with principles.

Instead, I see Owen as the cute, flirty guy next door who Annie wants, who she wants to believe is a guy for her because it fits in with what she wants her life to be, even if it is not. And even as she doesn’t quite connect with the real world, she tries to re-imagine it into the way she wants it to be but the truth bleeds through. So Owen is perfect and handsome, yet she cannot deny that he won’t let a three year old win a game. Annie loves Zoe, and talks of all she does for her, yet keeps peanut butter around the highly allergic child. She finds boxes and clothes marked “Adele – something, maybe Elizabeth, Cohen” and doesn’t acknowledge that Elizabeth is a nickname for Libby and that Libby and Adele may be the same person.

So! Clearly, The Ruining is a book that gave me many thoughts. And feelings. What do you think? Is this a mystery about a girl who is being used by her employer? Or is a look inside a disturbed mind, where nothing can be trusted?

Other reviews: Respiring Thoughts; In The Best Worlds; Daisy Chain Book Reviews.

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: The Fifth Wave

The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher. Book website. First in a trilogy.

The Plot: It is months after the aliens first came, the Others, and sixteen year old Cassie Sullivan is huddled in a tent, alone with just her baby brother’s teddy bear for company.

Cassie is alone and terrified and surviving. So far, she has survived each wave, the waves that have killed billions and continues to kill the handful of human survivors.

The waves of attack started shortly after the alien ships appeared in the sky. Cassie has survived each one: the 1st Wave when the electricity went out, the 2nd Wave of superstorms that wiped out the shorelines and killed billions, the 3rd Wave of disease that killed billions more, and the 4th Wave, of Others who look like humans and are intent on killing the handful of humans who are still alive.

Before Cassie realized what the 4th Wave was, she waved good-bye to her five year old brother Sammy as he was rescued by soldiers.

Cassie is alone and scared. With the Others looking like any other survivor, can she trust the people she meets? Can she rescue her brother?

Ben Parish is in a refuge camp. Like Cassie, he has survived each Wave. Unlike Cassie, he has no family left. He is given a chance for revenge, for vengeance, for redemption, by becoming a soldier in the attack against the Others. He is being trained to hunt and to kill, along with other children and teens. Children and teens who have been rescued by soldiers.

Who do you trust, when the enemy wears familiar faves? Who is the enemy? And what is the 5th Wave?

The Good: I read this the first time on a plane ride home from ALA Midwinter. By the time I got halfway through, by the time Cassie encountered Evan Walker and was trying to figure out whether she could trust him, by the time Cassie’s former high school classmate Ben was being trained to be a soldier by those I (and Cassie) knew to be others, I was so worried for Cassie and Ben and Sammy that I rushed through the second half of the book, fast reading to find out what happens next.

The second time I read this book, knowing what happened, I was able to sit back and see how the pieces fit together. There is the question of battlefields, and that the battle is not just physical attacks but also what is going on internally. “And if this is humanity’s last war, then I am the battlefield.” There is figuring

This is primarily Cassie’s story, her voice is in the first and last chapters, telling the story, but along the way, other chapters are told through other people’s points of view. That’s how we find out about Ben, and a little bit about Sammy, and a little bit about one of the Others. “The Others are so far ahead of us, it’s like comparing the dumbest human to the smartest dog.

Before the aliens came, Ben was a golden boy at his high school: charming and athletic, popular, the boy Cassie had a crush on for years. Cassie was boring and average and not really noticed. The truth is, as is shown in The 5th Wave, is we don’t know what we’re made of until bad stuff happens. Cassie, that average sixteen year old, turns out to be brave and strong and resilient. She may cry (“When I cry — when I let myself cry — that’s who I cry for. I don’t cry for myself. I cry for the Cassie’s that gone“) but it doesn’t stop her. It doesn’t stop her from picking up a gun and firing in self defense. It doesn’t stop her from firing when the person facing her may be a dangerous Other or a human. When the instinct is to run or to face what is happening, she faces what is happening.

Ben ran. When Ben had to face the worst, he ran. His running away, and what he ran away from, is why he’s so intent on becoming a soldier. It’s his chance to show that he he can do the right thing, to stand and not run. Like the other children being groomed as soldiers, he discards his old name for a nickname: “Zombie is everything Ben wasn’t. Zombie is hardcore. Zombie is badass. Zombie is stone-cold.” Here’s the thing, though — and the reader knows it before Ben does because of what Cassie has told us — Ben is trusting the wrong people. Part of the growing dread and the reason I turned the pages is knowing that Ben has trusted the wrong people and wondering when he will realize it and what will happen then.

Trusting the wrong people — and then there is Evan. Evan Walker. Should Cassie trust him? But isn’t trust important, part of what makes us human? “How do you rid the Earth of humans? Rid the humans of their humanity.” Whether Cassie should trust Evan is not so much about Evan as it is about Cassie.

The 5th Wave joins my list of Favorite Books Read in 2013, because I adore a book that works on so many levels at the same time. It’s a fast paced turn-pager that also provides much food for thought about what it is to be a human. It gives us the evil alien Others who are intent on eliminating all humans but then gives us a peak into one such Other so that we realize it’s not that simple. There are two equally sympathetic characters, Cassie and Ben, with very different paths — and each of those paths alone makes this an easy book to booktalk. Combined, The 5th Wave will booktalk itself.

And there is so much more! Remember when I mused about characters in books getting their periods? Early on, Cassie is packing her backpack and figuring out what to take? Now, I have to confess to being one of those list-lovers, both in real life and in books, so list = happy anyway.  But this list does something else: it makes us think if, when you only have that one backpack, what do you bring? What is worth the weight? Underwear and photos, toothpaste and sardines. And, for Cassie, tampons, because “I’m constantly worrying about my stash and if I’ll be able to find more.” And this is damn near perfect, because it’s realistic. Society is destroyed and you just can’t run down to the drugstore anytime you want. It acknowledges that Cassie is sixteen so getting her period happens and so it’s part of what she has to be prepared for. It’s not a major plot point, but it’s as important to her survival as getting drinkable water.

And then here is something else, there is so much in The 5th Wave I want to talk about and discuss, that this could go on for another thousand words. Like how, just as Cassie cried for her younger, innocent self, I cried, too — and at how The 5th Wave conveyed just how big and small the losses are, to the world, with wave after wave of attack. Like missing hamburgers or forgetting what someone’s face looks like. Or how my thoughts turn to “would I survive” and then “would I want to.”

The 5th Wave is the first in a trilogy. The question I ask anymore for part of a series is, “does the book answer the question it raised? does it give an ending to its primary plot?” Here, the answer is “yes” and “yes.” The 5th Wave reveals just what the 5th Wave is; and there is a resolution to what I see as the main plot. (See how I avoided spoilers there? “Resolution” is so open and I haven’t said what I see as the “main plot.”) In point of fact, the story was resolved so well that it makes me even more curious as to what will happen in the next book.



Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone

Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye. Penguin Books. 2012. Personal copy. Vacation reads, a series of adult books reviewed before holidays for your vacation reading.

The Plot: Christian has returned home, returned from the United States to Germany, to a place that is no longer the dark, small town he remembers but instead is a place of vacation homes and brightness. Retired, away from Germany for decades, he returns after the death of his mother.

He sees friends from his past: Martin, Alex, Linde. Their past holds secrets, the types of secrets that people in small towns know about but do not talk about. “Our secrets in Hemmersmoor were always open and always kept safe.”

An old man has returned to his childhood home. Come, let him and his friends tell you their secrets.

Be warned: these secrets are dark.

The Good: I’m not sure what I thought Your House is on Fire was going to be; oh, I knew it was about secrets, about what had happened to these adults as children, I expected twists and turns and  to be scared and horrified.

Still, knowing all this, I didn’t expect — I couldn’t know —

Christian says at the beginning, “I have returned, but not to the village I once left. That village doesn’t exist anymore, survives in only my memories and dreams.” I was thinking something like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story or Stephen King’s IT would follow. Both of those books are lighthearted romps with puppies and unicorns in sunny fields of rainbows and daisies compared to Your House is on Fire. I thought this was going to be creepy; it is, but it so redefines creepy that I’ll be frugal about how I use that word in the future.

I began, thinking ah, Christian is the main character because he begins the story. He lets us know hints of some of the secrets that will come (Alex’s time in jail, Linde’s scarred face, deaths in Christian’s family). After the prologue, though, there are a series of small chapters, each with a different narrator (Martin, Christian, Linde, Anke) telling a different story of themselves and their town, starting with when the children are seven. “Time is of no importance,” the reader is told — and Your House is on Fire tells us how true that can be.

Kiesbye never gives the reader a year, but he gives clues. The talk of two Germanys, of wars, of televisions and trainers in the present, let the reader know that this story is taking place after World War II, with these children born in the end days of that War. Lurking unsaid over this tale of tangled secrets, dark desires, darker actions is the bigger secret, unspoken but known, of the town’s role in that war and what lies behind the town.

The first story, told by Martin, is the story that let me know I’d fallen into a rabbit hole, had no idea what was up or what was down or what would happen next. Martin, only seven, is telling about the town’s fall Thanksgiving festival and the yearly contest for best stew, best roast, best baked goods. I settle in, and get what I expect in Martin’s story told from seven year sensibilities and then — wait, what? What just happened? No, it couldn’t, it didn’t go there — And Martin, almost innocently, always matter of factly, continues on almost as if he didn’t share watching a horrible crime.

This is a horror story, make no doubt about it. Is it a supernatural one? I think not, even though there are references to ghosts and witches, to folk lore believed as truth, to curses. It can be read as a place where belief makes old wives tales real; or it can be read, as I do, with ghosts and witches being used to try to understand a confusing world where a prior generations actions and inactions, no matter how much kept secret, tangle up the lives of the village’s residents and even children cannot escape.

The sins of the parents, though, is too easy an answer for what happens in Your House is on Fire. Christian, Martin, and the others have free will, after all — and what is most surprising to me is how long they disassociate themselves from their own actions. Perhaps this is also merely a reflection of the war years and the aftermath, the ability to not take ownership.

Have I been clear enough that I adored and loved this Your House is on Fire? I did; it’s a Favorite Book Read in 2013; and I want others to read it. I love what is said and unsaid; I love the language. I love the hints that this is fairy tales made real, that this is history, that this is a Twilight Zone town made real. I love that it’s a story tightly told without any extra words. I loved the unflinching look, almost without judgment, at the darkness in people. I love how much is left up to the reader. I love how unsettling it was. Word of warning — if you need to “like” characters to read a book, then this is not for you. 

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Author Interview at CarolineLeavittville; Jenn’s Bookshelves.




Review: My Life Next Door

My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick, Dial Books, an imprint of Penguin. 2012. Copy provided for review.

The Plot: Samantha Reed’s mother explained to her about the family next door: “There’s one in every neighborhood. The family that never mows their lawn. The toys scattered everywhere.” The message to Sam is clear: stay away from the Garretts.

Sam is fascinated by the Garretts: all the children, the noise, the chaos, so unlike her own tidy home, her perfectionist mother, her in charge sister. She secretly watches them — until one day Jase Garrett climbs the trellis.

The boy next door: Jase. The boy her mother cannot know about. Even Sam’s best friend is disapproving. Jase’s family is welcoming and loving — just like she pictured they would be.

Until something terrible happens. Sam has a choice to make.

The Good: Mrs. Reed’s dislike for the Garretts is clear from the start. They don’t live life as she thinks it should be led: they have too messy a house and yard, they have too many children. Apparently, the family gets that a lot; Jase says his mother’s response to the people is “to pity them, feel sorry for anyone who thinks what they think is right should be some universal law.”

To Sam, the Garretts are interesting and exciting: eight children and married parents, a family without as much money, a family that is warm and loving. Sam’s mother is a cold perfectionist, caring about what the family looks like to outsiders even before she ran (and won) the race for state senator.

Aside from the differences in the two families in terms of money, family size, and socioeconomic background (Mrs. Reed lives quite well off a family trust; Mr. Garrett owns a neighborhood store),  both teens — Sam and Jase — are good kids from good families. It’s important to note, because this is not about a bad boy and a good girl, even though Mrs. Reed as well as some of Sam’s friends  see Jase as “bad” because of exterior factors (how he looks, what he drives, what school he goes to, etc.) It’s about two good teens from different families. And there’s nothing wrong with different.

That said, Mrs. Reed is one piece of work. She believes that appearances do reflect the content, so judges based on that. She’s also not as put-together as she likes to pretend, as shown by her romance with the campaign manager for her re-election. She is reserved and  — oh, forget it. I’ll be blunt. I did not like Mrs. Reed, not at all: she was cold, judgmental, and manipulative. While the ending of the book made sense within the context of the characters involved, I didn’t like it.

I think that Sam should go to university on the opposite side of the country as her mother, and send cards at holidays. Or England, England works. Or South America. I’m not as concerned about what happens to Jase, because he has a family he loves who loves him back. Sam, though — with that mother, I’m worried for her beyond the pages of the book.

Topic: despite my personal feelings towards Samantha’s mother, I really, really loved this book! Samantha and Jase, as I said, are two good teens and I loved that. It’s a great romance of two teens trying to fit together, and the big barrier is Sam’s friends and family and their attitude.It’s the summer before Sam and Jase’s senior year; and this is a romance for older teens. Sam and Jase are the type of teens where they talk about sex before having it and go condom shopping together.

Sam choosing to be with Jase, and how she handles it, is as much about Sam falling for Jase as it is about Sam beginning to establish independence from her family. (And as I may have mentioned…. it’s an independence that MUST be done.)

So, what do you think? Am I being too harsh about Senator Grace Reed?

Other reviews: Galleysmith; Clear Eyes Full Shelves; Novel Thoughts.

Review: Paper Valentine

Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff. Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin. 2013. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: It’s summer. It’s hot. A mosquito virus is going around. And the body of a teenage girl has been found in Muncy Nature Park.

It’s the summer before eleventh grade for Hannah Wagner. The summer after the death of her best friend, Lillian. Lillian and her death haunts Hannah, just as the death of the teenager in the park will haunt Hannah —

No, really. Lillian’s ghost is always around, haunting Hannah. At dinner, there is Lillian. Watching TV. While at work at her cousin’s photography shop.

And then another girl is killed. Together, Hannah and Lillian begin to investigate the murders.

The Good: A ghost story: the ghost of Lillian. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that Lillian was not murdered; rather, she died from complications from anorexia. So this isn’t about Hannah avenging Lillian’s death, or Lillian trying to solve her own murder.

Paper Valentine is a murder mystery, yes; and it’s up to Hannah to solve it. Hannah, who has felt lost since Lillian’s death. Hannah, who has tried to fake it — to fake that everything is OK and that she is OK. Hannah starts to look into the murders of the girls, pushed both by Lillian and her own interest, spurred on by seeing the photographs of the crime scene. Paper Valentine is a terrific mystery, tightly plotted, and Hannah’s role as teen investigator is believably shown. Hannah is no Nancy Drew or Veronica Mars super sleuth; rather, she’s a teenaged girl with a lot on her mind who is also looking into the murders of local girls.

A lot on her mind . . .  Yes, this is a mystery and will satisfy mystery fans. But Paper Valentine is something, else, too: it’s about girl whose heart has been broken by the death of her best friend, and not just the death, but a death by anorexia. Paper Valentine is Hannah working through her friendship with Lillian, and Lillian’s sickness, and their changing relationship, and the loss she experienced. Lillian is neither beatified nor villainized, even though at times Lillian does come across as a bit of a mean girl, a bit controlling. Really, what is more controlling than haunting your friend? Who is Hannah, without Lillian? Are her old friends still her friends, or are they a habit, a hold over, a group who has lost its glue with the loss of Lillian? And is that a bad thing?

Who is Hannah, what does she like, what doesn’t she like, now that Hannah is gone? Is she still the girl who dresses each day with unique creativity — is that really who she is? Or is it who Lillian wanted her to be? Lillian had been invested in appearances and what other people thought, something she reminds Hannah of over and over, so Hannah being attracted to “bad boy” Finny is something that Hannah-before may not have done. Yes, Finny is a bad boy . . . . or is he? Rather, he’s a classic book “bad” boy, in that “bad” is not about the actions or character of a person, but, rather, certain things about him have been coded to say “bad.” He’s of lower socioeconomic status. As a child he acted up sometimes in school, because he lacked the verbal or other skills to process what he was going through, so his failure to conform to the “quiet” role marked him as “bad.” His clothes say “bad boy.” I confess, since one of my pet peeves is determining a “bad boy” is “bad” based on things like clothes, boots, tattoos, and hair rather than actions, I adored that Paper Valentine examined this type of judgment to look deeper at who Finny is rather than his choice of hair color or shirt.

A couple of other random observations about things I liked: Hannah is part of a healthy stepfamily. She has a caring stepfather and that is just part of the story, no drama. Hannah has a good bond with her younger sister, Ariel: just the right mix of teasing and frustration and love. Hannah herself is a good girl, and has enough self-preservation to not allow Lillian’s loss to destroy her. It doesn’t stop it from affecting her, and Paper Valentine is as much about dealing with grief and loss as it is about murder. The setting of a town in a heat wave is so wonderfully detailed that even though it was a chilly November while I was reading it, I wanted lemonade and air conditioning.

One last thing. This may be a spoiler for some, so skip this paragraph if you are ultra sensitive about such things. I don’t think Paper Valentine is necessarily a ghost story. If you want to,  you can read it that way: there is Lillian, and at some point Hannah sees the ghosts of the dead girl, and there is a seance or two that you can read as paranormal. But, if you want, you can also read this as a girl who is grief stricken and not ready to let go of a friend, and believe that Lillian is not “really” a ghost. The plot, the mystery, and the resolution all work with both readings.

Officially, I’m going to call this a Favorite Book Read in 2013. Why? Because I adored Hannah; I loved the mystery; and I believed I was in a sleepy small town during a heat wave.

Review: Lola and the Boy Next Door

Lola and the Boy Next Door by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton, a member of Penguin Group USA. 2011. Personal copy. Companion to Anna and the French Kiss.

The Plot: Seventeen year old Dolores “Lola” Nolan has a pretty good life. Her two dads, Nathan and Andy, are super supportive even if they are over protective and a bit stricter than other people’s parents. Lola has a terrific best friend, Lindsey; a hot, rocker boyfriend, Max; a job she likes; and a passion — clothes and costume design — that she wears everyday.

Then HE moves back in next door. Cricket, the boy next door. Who broke her heart years ago and moved away. Now she has to see him every day. Lola begins to reluctantly acknowledge that she still may have feelings for Cricket. What about her boyfriend, Max? What about her future plans?

The Good: Lola and the Boy Next Door is another terrific teen romance from Stephanie Perkins. It’s a companion to Anna and the French Kiss; more about that later. And, just to be clear, as the title promises, the romance is between Lola and her next door neighbor, Cricket.

Lola’s boyfriend at the start of the book is Max, and Max is an appealing boyfriend on paper. Look a little deeper, though, and something seems off. What I love is how Perkins, who tells this from Lola’s perspective, has the reader come to the realization along with Lola that Max is not all that and a bag of chips. This is not a book where from the first page I wanted to say, “Lola, what are you thinking?” Yes, Max is older, 22. Yes, he’s the musician to her high school student. But, it shows Max going along with all the rules her parents have put in place because of the age difference, including a weekly Sunday Brunch. It’s only as time goes by that the reader — and Lola — discovers that Max isn’t happy about that, not at all.

I know some people may be thinking “triangle! cheating!” As with Anna and the French Kiss, Perkins handles this aspect very gracefully and respectfully, and I won’t reveal all. Lola and the Boy Next Door addresses some complex emotions: having feelings for two different people; trying to sort out what one really feels versus what one wants to feels; and learning how to read a situation. (All I’ll say is one good lesson to learn: if your best friend doesn’t get along with your boyfriend, take that seriously and don’t dismiss it.)

Because of Lola’s anger from what happened a few years back, and because of her current boyfriend, Max, Lola and Cricket’s relationship progresses slowly. A friendship is discovered, or, rather, rediscovered, and here, also, the contrast between Cricket and Max is made apparent slowly. Another lesson to learn:  not a good sign if your boyfriend doesn’t want to hang out with any of your friends.are

In addition to the fun, sometimes flirty, often awkward, but ultimately hopeful and healthy relationship that develops between Lola and Cricket, the strength of this book is the supporting cast of characters. Anna and St. Clair appear, and they are just the type of couple you’d hope they’d be.

Cricket is as fashion-aware as Lola is (did I mention that Lola’s mantra is “I don’t believe in fashion, I believe in costume“?) Lola doesn’t just read fashion magazines and buy clothes; she makes her own clothes. I’m not a fashion person, but I adored the descriptions of Lola’s clothes and how she basically wore her heart, her mind, her soul on her sleeve. Whether whimsical or depressed, her outside reflects her character.

Cricket’s sister, Calliope, is an Olympic level figure skater, and that’s not just some throwaway make her interesting tidbit. The practice, expense, and dedication that level of athletic training requires of the whole family is shown; and  yes, it ends up tying back to Lola herself.

Lola’s family is complicated. Not because she has two dads. Lola references their strictness, and it’s clear they don’t like Max but also don’t want to do anything that pushes Lola away and pushes her towards Max. They are supporting and loving. What is complicated is that her biological mother is the sister of one of her father’s.

As with Paris in Anna, place matters: here, it is San Francisco. Instead of someone discovering a city, it’s about a girl whose city is her place, who knows that city better than she knows herself. And given what Lola needs to realize about herself, Max, and Cricket, that’s quite true.

Other reviews: Librarian by Day; Reading Rants; GalleySmith; Youth Services Corner.

Review: Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone

Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield. Dutton Books, a member of Penguin Group USA. 2012. Reviewed from ARC from publisher.

The Plot: The night of graduation, Rebecca’s boyfriend James breaks up with her. It’s a preemptive move; Rebecca, school salutatorian, is headed off to college when summer is over. James, drop out, is staying behind in their small town.

The next day, not far from the field where James told Rebecca it’s over, a body of a young woman is found.

No one knows it yet, but it’s Amelia Anne Richardson.

Two stories are entwined: that of Rebecca’s summer after high school. She is desperate to leave behind her small town and their small minds, yet doesn’t want to lose James. Amelia’s story is that of the months before her body is found: a college senior just discovering a whole new world, a world she cannot wait to enter.

Amelia’s story ends one way. How will Rebecca’s story end?

The Good: Dual stories! Love it. “The night before Amelia Anne Richardson bled her life away on a parched dirt road outside of town, I bled out my dignity in the back of a pickup truck under a star-pricked sky.”

Rebecca is a girl trapped in her small town, who has always been crystal clear about what she wants: to leave. “Trapped” is a strong word: it’s the town where her parents live, no more or less, and they are supportive of her dreams for college. There is no pressure from them to stay or to return. When I first began reading, I wasn’t sure what to make of James; it’s the night of graduation and James breaks up with her right after they have sex. Already, in my head, I painted a picture of James as mean, or cruel, or abusive; and Rebecca as dating a local boy just “for now,” with hurt feelings and pride, no more, no less.

I was wrong. Rebecca loves James; he loves her. The break up was more a declaration, by James, that he knows she is going to be leaving him behind come Fall and become that guy, that high school boyfriend left behind in the rear view mirror. Rebecca isn’t stupid; she realizes that, also, and it’s colored some of her interactions with James in the past year. She wants to go; she doesn’t want to lose James. He doesn’t want to hold her back; he doesn’t want to lose her. For various reasons, he is stuck in the town with no choice about his future. The knowledge this is the last summer haunts every moment together or apart, as, too, does the dead girl haunt Rebecca.

The reader knows her name, Amelia Anne Richardson. The reader knows her story. In some ways, it’s similar to Rebecca’s own story. Amelia, at college, is discovering a new path for herself, acting, not business, and it opens up a world and future she didn’t even realize she wanted. Like Rebecca, she will be leaving something known behind. Like Rebecca, there is a boyfriend, and this young man, like James, realizes that his girlfriend’s dreams may not include him. The main difference is that Amelia is so eager to have her life start, while, suddenly, Rebecca — I don’t want to say she isn’t sure. She wants to go. She just seems to be putting herself into a type of emotional limbo. It’s as if she realizes that her childhood is being left behind, and suddenly, she doesn’t want that to happen.

Rebecca is an interesting character; as I said, for some reason, at the beginning I didn’t realize the depth of her connection to James. Despite that, Rebecca wants to leave her small town and I liked that. Both Rebecca and Amelia are unapologetically ambitious in what they want to do. Here is Rebecca: “[I]t wasn’t just about getting away. It was about not coming back. It wasn’t just the size and sensibility of this place that made it unbearable, but its pull — the weird magnetism that could sap your ambition, clip your wings, leave you inert and fascinated and sinking ever deeper into the choking quicksand of small-town life.”  As the summer unwinds, as Rebecca faces some choices, I wondered — how much of what she does, or doesn’t do, is driven by this? About making sure she wouldn’t go back?

They mystery of the dead girl by the road; for most of the summer, not even her name is known. The reader knows more, knows her alive, knows her as Amelia, and as Amelia’s life moves to the time and place of her death, I kept wondering: who did she end up there? And why? Rebecca wonders about this dead girl, whose body was found not to far from where she and James were together. I had half-guessed parts of Amelia’s death; was surprised by others; and was also stunned by Rebecca’s role.

What I adored most about this book? The sentences; Rebecca’s observations; the way she told her story. “Innocence can only last so long, especially that kind that comes from growing up sheltered by quiet neighborhoods, immaculate concrete sidewalks, so much nothingness for miles around. . . . Same faces, same streets, day in and day out, eyes that never witness anything more desolate than those empty, gravel-strewn county roads.” Or, this: “our knowledge has no memory. We have always lived here; what we know has always beens.”

Because of the language; because of the complexity of James; because of Rebecca herself; this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Review: Anna and the French Kiss

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins. Speak, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA). 2011. Personal copy. (Hardcopy Dutton, a member of Penguin Group  (USA) 2010.

The Plot: Anna’s mostly absent father has decided that Anna should spend her senior year at boarding school in Paris, France. Anna is not pleased about leaving Atlanta, her friends, her crush-almost-a-boyfriend, her mother and younger brother. She will be leaving home soon enough for college, to study film; why leave now?

All because her father (a successful novelist whose books feature family values and tragically dying love interests) has decided it’s a good idea.

Oh, if you’re wondering whether Anna speaks French, the answer is no. She’ll be at the School of America in Paris, so it’s  not as if she needs to know it for school. Did I mention that she’s the only new senior?

Lucky for Anna, she quickly meets some fun and cool new friends. Among them is the super cute Etienne St. Clair (bonus points — he has a British accent). St. Clair quickly becomes one of her best friends. Sometimes she wonders if it could be something more, except he has a girlfriend and she has that crush waiting in Atlanta. A lot can happen in a year.

The Good: I loved this book! Love, love, love, and right away went out and bought the companion, Lola and the Boy Next Door, but am saving that for vacation later this summer.

There are so many things to love, I’m afraid I’ll forget one. Or, in talking about one, not give enough credit to another.

First thing to know: this is a romance, and it’s all about the connection and missed opportunities between St. Clair and Anna. He has a girlfriend; she has a possibility; and it just goes from there. Major points to Anna, in that while she falls in  like with St. Clair right away, once she learns about his girlfriend she backs away. I’ve written before about how I’m tough on romantic triangles. Here? It’s so perfect — As I said, Anna does her best to keep her emotions in check, due to St. Clair’s girlfriend. So let’s take a look at her: Ellie, who graduated from the School of America in Paris the year before. She is conveniently away, so that Anna does not have to see St. Clair and Ellie being a couple. Also, Ellie is good friends with the crew Anna is now close to, so they all have good things to say about Ellie. Because St. Clair and Anna cannot be together, or even admit their attraction to each other, they instead become friends. Which, I loved.

The reason behind St. Clair’s romantic conflict (flirty/attracted to Anna, staying with Ellie) ends us being something I excuse in a teen (St. Clair, like Anna, is a high school senior) but would be less forgiving of an adult. Why? Because part of this book is also about coming of age; of growing up. Anna, thrust into the world a year before she expected, has to make new friends and figure out how to navigate a strange city with strange food, not knowing the language. More than that, though, Anna also learns about things like forgiveness; how she appears to others; and whether its better to be with someone just to be a couple or to be alone. St. Clair is figuring that out, also. Is it better to be with someone you’re comfortable with, or to take a chance on the new girl? But what if the new girl is making a big deal out of her maybe-boyfriend-at-home? Anna and the French Kiss handles this dilemma beautifully, so that the book is about Anna and St. Clair’s relationship, yes, but also about them both growing up enough to have a relationship. (Hello, this is a romance, which to me means happy-ever-after, so that is so not a spoiler.)

Oh, and when I say “appears to others,” what I mean is the inadvertent signals sent as a result of self-absorption and thinking “its all about me.”  Sometimes, people don’t say “hi” in the cafeteria not because they don’t want to say hi to you, but because there are so many things going on they don’t see you. It’s the misunderstandings caused from thinking you know what someone else is thinking, so doing something, and therefore giving unintended signals.

I love that Anna didn’t want to go to Paris. By the second chapter, I wanted to be in Paris, walking those streets, eating that food, visiting the sites. Anna is a film buff, and in Paris she discovers tons of theatres that show American films, including older ones, so she gets to see on the big screen what she had only seen on the TV before. One thing I loved about Anna and the French Kiss: she has a film website, and we don’t read her posts. I appreciated that because it would have detracted from the book.

The supporting cast is all three dimensional, whether it’s the friends she left behind or the new ones she makes in Paris. Each has their own story, and it’s all woven together beautifully.

What else? St. Clair — who Anna eventually calls Etienne — is a great book boyfriend. He is funny and British but not perfect. In addition to the girlfriend, he (like Anna) has a less than perfect father figure. A controlling father’s impact on his child was very realistically drawn; and Etienne’s reactions (like Anna’s to her father) are perfect, and especially perfect for someone Etienne’s age. Oh, another thing — for those who like their relationships to be other than cookie cutter film couples: Etienne is shorter than Anna! Also, Anna has a gap between her two front teeth. It’s those little details that make the characters “real.”

Anna and the French Kiss is sweet, and warm, and fun, and happy-making. I literally smiled my way through it. Because I am still smiling; and because I like knowing there is love and happiness and goodness in the world, and Anna and Etienne and their friends reminded me of that, this is a Favorite Book Read in 2012.

Other reviews: Librarian by Day by Melissa Rabey (who, on Twitter, wisely said this is a hug in book form); Leila Roy at the Kirkus blog; Reading Rants; Angieville; GalleySmith; Stacked Books.