All the Bright Places

18460392by Jennifer Niven
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars

I’ll admit, the cover drew me to this book. The beautiful jacket and the whimsical embossed hardcover all demanded I take it home! This is one of those heart-wrenching bittersweet reads that makes you think (and cry).

Violet is counting the days until graduation. Nothing is the same without her older sister, Eleanor, who was killed in a car accident the previous year. Finch thinks about dying every day, but manages to find reasons to stay alive one day at a time. The two of them meet in the school’s bell tower, on the ledge–and they leave together, too. When a school project has them seeking out the “wonders of Indiana” they both start to see things differently.

As a Midwestern girl, I can say the commentary on life in flyover country is completely spot-on. Niven had me cracking up! The idea of “the largest ball of paint” and other obscure “tourism” sites is so true to life. I enjoyed the school project and the challenge it presented about perspective both to Violet and Finch and to me.

Of course, this is also a story of suicide, and survivors of suicide. This taboo subject is close to the heart of the author, as her deeply personal acknowledgment note explains. For me, this made the story emotionally authentic, which is something I worry about when “quirky” meets “serious issues.” Nothing happened for dramatic effect, Finch’s struggles weren’t cheapened, and Violet’s journey was nearly autobiographical.  The best part of this book is that it provides a way to talk about something that is viewed with shame, stigma, and blame–to everyone involved. It becomes so clear that the worst thing you can do is not talk about it, and that’s something everyone needs to know. There is help, no matter how dark things seem.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, All the Bright Places is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Fault in Our Stars by John Green – A star-crossed romance between Hazel and Gus, two teens with different cancers, different outlooks on life, and the realization that no amount of snarky banter or dismal diagnoses will stop them from dating. Both funny and emotional, with plenty of introspection. See my review here.
  • Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell – Another heart-breaking romance between two teens who don’t believe in love, yet can’t help falling for each other. Eleanor is from the wrong side of the tracks; Park is the nerdy Asian American that nobody likes–but even he is smart enough not to befriend outcast Eleanor. Until he realizes she might be the only person who understands him. See my review here.
  • When We Collided by Emery Lord – Vivi and her artist mother are spending the summer in beachside town Verona Cove. Jonah is cute enough to be the perfect summer fling. But as Vivi and Jonah start to share what they’re running from, they’ll have to decide if their problems will bring them closer or drive them apart. See my review here.
  • The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord – Paige’s is aware that high school is all about labels. And hers is “The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned.” With the help of her grandmother and girlfriends, she hopes to turn this year into something better, and find a way to heal. See my review here.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

29056083by John Tiffany, Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling
YA Fantasy
3 of 5 stars

This was both a hard book to read and a hard book to review. I avoided most of the hype about the play because pfff, I couldn’t afford to go to London, tickets are impossible to get anyway – and then this bound version of the script was announced. And I still avoided the hype because…it’s not canon, right? Not really? But then it came out and I bought it on release day because dammit I couldn’t resist the magic of nostalgia! Did it live up to my mostly-resisted hype?

…eh.

I guess if I can’t shriek “yes” the answer is “no” – but again, I am just so conflicted! There’s nothing wrong with the story. There’s nothing wrong with the writing. It’s just…did I imagine Harry working for the government? Being kind of an ass? Did I imagine such a…realistic future for the beloved characters? Of course not! After all the drama and trauma and horror of the series, the whole point was imagining a happily ever after for the ones left alive! (Or you know…a somewhat somber version of that). But this play puts a wrecking ball through that idea.

This story centers around Harry’s tense relationship with his Slytherin-sorted middle child, Albus (the cute one from the HP7 epilogue). Albus doesn’t like being famous Harry Potter’s very average son. Harry doesn’t like that Albus is pretty much a puzzle to him (he doesn’t share all Harry’s own likes and prejudices). Enter time-travel, for reasons to bring back the old crew in bizarre ways.

Sure, the play centers on coming of age and parenting and finding yourself, but a few platitudes aside, it’s basically some of the stranger fan-fiction theories thrown together. Certain events that hold weight in the previous 7 books seem cheapened in this play. Most of the characters wouldn’t be recognizable from their actions alone. We’re told how we should really feel about side characters from the original series. Everything seemed disjointed and I’m not sure if seeing it on stage would help this or not.

A few moments tugged at my heart, but for the most part I just couldn’t figure out what I was reading. The mood and the messages were all over the place to me. I’m hoping this is something I can revisit later to enjoy it more, because I was underwhelmed this time. Again, the writers didn’t make the choices I would have made, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad–and I couldn’t really tell you what I was expecting! It just wasn’t this. I think I’ve waffled on this enough now!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Carry On by Rainbow Rowell – The play strongly reminded me of this story! (A fanfiction story from a novel–pretty meta). Simon and Baz are roommates who have hated each other for 6 years. But now it’s finally time for Simon to face the Insidious Humdrum and fulfill his Chosen One destiny. Baz is pretending he doesn’t care about anything–the Humdrum, finishing school, or the fact that he’s been in love with Simon for years and may want to do something about that. See my review here.
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell – Cath and her twin sister Wren write Simon Snow fan-fiction (see Carry On) but now they are off to college and Wren declares they aren’t rooming together, and she isn’t writing anymore. Cath isn’t sure how to cope–so she writes some more, and tries to ignore the cute boy trying to ask her out. This is an adorable story!
  • Hour of the Bees by Lindsay Eagar – I love this story! Carolina’s family spends a summer on her estranged grandfather’s sheep farm as they prep it for sale. Her grandfather, Serge, has dementia, and is going to move into an assisted-living home. Serge tells Carolina that “the bees will bring back the rain” and at first she thinks he’s confused and telling random stories about a magical tree in the desert. But then bees begin following her around too, and she wonders if Serge has been telling the truth all along. See my review here.
  • Passenger by Alexandra Bracken – If you want more time-travel, look no further! This lovingly researched book will take you from New York City all over the world from the 1700s to the 1900s as Etta searches for an astrolabe so her grandfather will give her mother back. See my review here.

Hour of the Bees

22453777by Lindsay Eagar
YA Contemporary / Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 8, 2016

I loved this story! When I wasn’t reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Where to even begin…

Things that I loved? Magical realism! So well done, so beautiful. The descriptions of the desert – lovely. The food – you will be so hungry! The family dynamic–Carolina’s relationship with her grandfather, her older sister, her parents. She’s 12, that in-between age of growing up but knowing you’ll never be a kid again. Also, because she’s 12, this book is sitting comfortably between YA and MG which as you know from my previous posts, I find interesting. This book is quite long for MG and tackles some heavier themes as well, but the writing is simplistic and Carolina is too young to be a typical YA protagonist. Enjoy sorting this!

Carolina’s family is traveling to her grandfather’s remote sheep ranch to pack up the house and move her grandfather to an assisted living home because of his dementia. A 100-year drought has left the land cracked and worthless. Carolina has never met her grandfather, Serge, because her father has refused to see him for 12 years. Serge doesn’t understand why his family rejects their heritage and roots. Moments between her parents and her grandfather are tense. Her older sister, Alta, just wants to escape the ranch with her boyfriend whenever possible. Serge doesn’t want to leave his home, and insists that Carolina watch for bees, because “the bees will bring back the rain.” Carolina is in the middle of it all, forced to confront how she really feels about her roots, her family, and her future.

Carolina wants the truth of of her family’s past, but she ends up hearing a fantastical tale about a magical tree, bees, and a village of people who never grew old. She isn’t sure whether Serge believes the story he’s telling her, but when bees begin following her around the ranch, she wants to believe it.

This story is beautifully told – I highly recommend checking this out if you want something with complicated families and an unforgettable atmosphere. The theme of what makes a truly full life will have you thinking about this book long after you finish it.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Hour of the Bees is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord – Another lovely book about finding your identity amidst tragic circumstances. Paige’s first boyfriend died in a freak drowning accident, and now she faces junior year as The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned. Amazing female friendships and a touching relationship between Paige and her aging grandmother. See my review here.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Another story about learning not to spit on your roots–Gabi is Mexican-American and it seems like she is always becoming either too Mexican or too American for those around her. This book explores her senior year through her diary as she opens up to writing and dealing with the complex highs and lows of high school. See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mim is not thrilled with her father’s stepfamily, and when she learns her mother is sick, she takes an impromptu road trip to go see her. See my review here.
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – Junior decides to save his own future by leaving the reservation to attend the white school, where the only other Indian is the mascot. An emotional story of what it means to find yourself while staying true to your family.
  • Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma – I love this magical realism story about a small town with a reservoir and two sisters–Ruby, who is everything, and Chloe, who looks up to her older sister. Ruby will do anything to keep her sister safe with her–even if it means bending the reality of their town and everyone in it. See my review here.
  • Maybe a Fox by Kathi Appelt & Alison McGhee – Another touching story of sisters in Vermont coping with their mother’s death. When Sylvi disappears, Jules is left alone to navigate her new world. Nearby, a tiny fox is doing the same thing. Beautiful magical realism! See my review here.
  • Bone Gap by Laura Ruby – Finn is horrified when Roza goes missing, just like the rest of Bone Gap, Illinois. He alone wants to keep searching for her several months later, despite his disgrace. He was the only who saw the man that took Roza–but he can’t remember his face. This story is filled with magical realism and heartbreaking truths about people. See my review here.

Pax

22098550by Sara Pennypacker
Children’s Lit
5 of 5 stars

This was a serendipitous find! From the cover to the contents this little story is beautiful. I read it in 24 hours and immediately went back to the store for a copy to send my foxy friend Janella!

While on the surface this is a typical children’s story about a boy and his pet (a fox instead of a dog), this has so much more to it. This is about a boy searching for his emerging identity when his only role model is a distant, angry father. It’s about a woman reclaiming what she lost from serving at the war front. It’s about a fox being in the wild world for the first time and learning how to survive. It’s about what makes us human and what makes us monsters.

When Peter’s father enlists in the army, he sends Peter to live with his grandfather in the country. On the way, Peter is forced to abandon Pax in the woods. Peter knows it’s wrong–and when he reaches his grandfather’s house, his immediate plan is to run away and rejoin Pax no matter what. They’re only a few hundred miles apart…

Pax doesn’t know why his boy left him in the woods, but he resolves to wait for Peter to come back. But approaching armies are encroaching on his safe space, and he won’t be able to wait forever…

The descriptions of the world seen through an innocent fox’s eyes and a young boy’s growing understanding are beautifully heartbreaking. I cried so much reading this book (which I never do) and I can’t recommend it enough as a middle-grade read with more substance than you’d expect.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Pax is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Lassie Come Home by Eric Knight – The classic story of a boy and his dog. When the family must sell Lassie she leaves her new owner repeatedly to return to Joe. But then she’s sent to a remote corner of Scotland, and her bond with Joe is tested to the utmost as she attempts a final, thousand-mile journey home. I loved this book as a kid, probably read it three times. It’s so sweet!
  • The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery – A stranded pilot encounters a little prince from space who comes to learn about life on Earth. This short book is incredible and enduring. See my review here.
  • Pegasus by Robin McKinley – A lengthy novel detailing two cultures that attempt to live symbiotically despite their near inability to communicate. Twelve-year-old princess Sylvi is more than ready to bond with her ceremonial pegasus. She knows that only with the help of translators will she and her pegasus be able to communicate and guide their nations together in peace. But Sylvi and Ebon can talk easily on their own, and it leads them both to wonder what other secrets lie between their nations and what it means for their alliance. In typical McKinley fashion there is intense world-building and subtle character development, but this is an immersive story that gets very enjoyable about 1/3 of the way through.
  • The Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl – I confess I haven’t read this yet but I loved the movie (I know, I know). A clever fox must save his family from vindictive farmers with his most daring (perhaps fantastic?) plan yet.
  • The 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith – The classic tale of a young London couple with two dalmatians, who then have 15 puppies coveted by a crazy lady obsessed with furs. Everyone knows the movie but this story is so much cuter in the original version! The descriptions are charming and there is more characterization.

The First Time She Drowned

24724627by Kerry Kletter
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: March 15, 2016

I fell in love with the cover for this book, then I fell in love with the jacket summary, then I finally got it from the library and I fell in love with the writing. I’d seen a few reviews commenting on how beautiful the prose is in this story and they were all accurate. From the memorable first line, “My mother wore the sun like a hat…” to the last page, the diction and imagery captured me. To me it read like an adult novel rather than YA because Cassie is in college, the tone is heavy, and the story is about the adult relationship between Cassie and her mother. There is a lot of crossover appeal here, either way.

Cassie is checking out of her mental health hospital AMA (against medical advice) to attend her first semester of college. She’s understandably more nervous than excited because she’s been sequestered from the world for two years since her mother left her there against her will. We follow Cassie as she adjusts to the real world and tries to move past the complicated relationship with her mother. But just as she decides she’s over it all and will focus on her future, her mother reappears, promising the love Cassie has craved her entire life.

We slowly see the two narratives at war in Cassie’s life: what she believes her childhood was like, and what her mother says it was like. What Cassie believes herself to be, and what her mother thinks of her. As Cassie meets more and more people who seem to react strangely to her relationship with her mom, Cassie finds it harder to decide what really happened. This novel is an incredibly moving picture detailing how insidious and toxic abusive relationships are with chilling scenes and dialogue.

I’ve had friends with relationships that reminded me of Cassie’s mom; these women would strike their daughters physically and lash out verbally in my presence; they commented on their daughter’s weight/appearance; they said no boy will ever want them unless they can change everything about themselves, and then called their own daughter a whore or a slut. And half an hour later we’d be called out for dinner as if nothing happened. It was embarrassing and heart-breaking for me, and I can’t imagine how my friends felt at the time. When you’re a freshman in high school (especially from a religious background) nobody tells you how to react or help or deal with these issues. I wish now I’d done more than just tell my parents—it came down to “it’s none of our business” and that response made me sick to my stomach. As if their life had to be in danger before anyone would intervene, but their mental and emotional stability were fair game.

This story is emotionally exhausting and important to read. So often the mental health issues behind abuse aren’t thoroughly explored (for both the abuser and the victim) and the author handles this in an expert manner. I can’t recommend this enough!

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, The First Time She Drowned is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson – Lia and Cassie are best friends with a pact to be the skinniest girls in school. Cassie prefers to vomit whatever she eats, Lia chooses to eat nothing. But when Cassie dies, Lia feels doubly haunted by her friend’s spirit and her own eating disorder, a nasty voice in her head that whispers if she can just lose enough weight, she and her problems will disappear. See my review here.
  • Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Gabi is a self-described fat Mexican-American just trying to fit in and survive her senior year. Between her absent father’s infrequent appearances, the pressure not to be “White,” her friend’s pregnancy and her other friend attempting to come out to his family, Gabi has a lot on her plate. But writing becomes her sanctuary in this beautiful, coming-of-age story told through her diary entries. See my review here.
  • Mosquitoland by David Arnold – Mary Iris Malone (Mim) is not okay with how her life is going. She’s not okay with knowing everyone thinks she is crazy. She’s not okay with her father’s remarriage. And she’s not okay with her father moving her replacement family hundreds of miles away from her mother. When letters from her mother stop, and Mim overhears a conversation that indicates her mother is ill, she wastes no time. She takes a bus to her mother. See my review here.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

19547856by Becky Albertalli
YA Contemporary
5 of 5 stars
Debut novel: April 7, 2015

My lovely friend Akshaya read this book in three hours last fall (in the bookstore where she bought it, no less!) so I knew I had to add it to my list. I enjoyed this so much!

I’m a bit picky about my contemporary YA voices, especially if they’re meant to be sarcastic or humorous. It’s so hard to make that resonate (at least to me) and even harder to keep it up for the duration of 300+ pages. Simon’s voice is flawless! Distinct without being annoying, smart but not in an irritating way. I devoured this!

Simon hasn’t told anyone he’s gay—except a guy named Blue. They’ve emailed each other for weeks, and although they know each other’s most intimate secret, their identities are private. Until Marty tells Simon he found those emails, and will release screenshots of them to the school’s gossip Tumblr account if Simon doesn’t get Marty a date with Abby—the new girl who has become fast friends with Simon.

Filled with typical high school drama, friendship, smart observations, and sharp discussions about sexuality, this reads like a typical YA rom-com—except it’s about a boy falling in love with a boy. Extra points for sibling and parent relationships instead of the usual ghost family situation (i.e. protagonist has a family we just never see them on-screen). His frustration with his parents’ inability to accept his continuous change (which is just being human after all) is so accurate. Of course we try new foods, new music, new things—that’s life! I felt that so much.

There are beautiful themes in this book, but my favorites are these: 1. As Simon tries to discover Blue’s identity, he reminds us how little we can know our own family and friends without intentional conversations and interest outside ourselves. 2. White shouldn’t be the default any more than straight should be the default.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero – Another favorite for me. Gabi is Mexican-American caught between her own modern values and her family’s traditional (if contradictory) views. Excellent voice and character with so many high school struggles seen through fresh eyes. Hilarious, feminist, diverse. See my review here.
  • Luna by Julie Ann Peters – Regan’s brother Liam has a secret—her true identity is Luna. Regan has helped Liam keep his transsexuality from their family and friends, but now Liam is ready to introduce Luna to the world, and Regan isn’t ready for her life to change because of it. Not the best representation of a trans character but interesting.
  • George by Alex Gino – A better representation of a trans character. George knows she’s a girl, but isn’t sure how to get her friends and family to see her true self. But then her school begins casting for that year’s play,Charlotte’s Web, and if George could get Charlotte’s part, maybe that would help introduce herself to the world. See my review here.

Backlist Bonus: An Abundance of Katherines

15707124by John Green
YA Contemporary
3 of 5 stars

After I read Looking for Alaska I was eager to dive into Green’s next novel. It sounded different enough that I was excited to see what he moved on to. Although parts of this story did make me laugh or held my interest, overall it was much harder to get through than any of his other books. The pace was plodding, and Colin didn’t interest me as a protagonist. Now that I’ve read four of his books, I can truly say this is my least favorite—though the quality of the writing puts it in my “okay” column.

Colin has been dumped by nineteen Katherines to date, and he’s ready to figure out why it keeps happening. He is working on a formula to predict a relationship’s end (who does the dumping and who is the dumpee, or if the relationship will work long-term) and is convinced he’s on the cusp of perfecting it. We follow his analysis of his previous failed relationships as he goes on a road trip with some friends and keeps a sharp eye for the next Katherine. Instead, he meets a Lindsey, who threatens to wreck all his notions about relationships.

This story features a rather predictable plot, lots of (interesting) math, and repetitive conversations. If you enjoy Colin’s perspective you’ll like this book, but if you find him wearisome I can assure you Green’s other protagonists are more lively and interesting. I was interested to see how Colin’s formula would develop (especially since Green enlisted an actual mathematician’s help) and this has a lot of quirks you’d find in humorous anecdotes from someone’s past. It feels a bit like a rambling story your grandfather might tell you years later. Worth reading if you want to read the complete set of Green’s work.

If you’d like to see more reviews or buy a copy for yourself, An Abundance of Katherines is available on Goodreads and on Barnes & Noble’s website here. Please consider supporting your local bookstore!


Similar reads:

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews – Greg relates his senior year and the circumstances that led to breaking his cardinal rule of remaining aloof socially: befriending a classmate dying of cancer. See my review here.
  • To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han – Lara Jean resolves to get over her past crushes by writing them love letters that she never sends. Except the letters DO find their recipients and she finds five boys wanting answers from her. A charming YA love story. See my review here.
  • The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer E. Smith – A somewhat predictable but decent romantic comedy that takes place over a 24-hour period en route from New York City to London.

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