real-talk YA book reviews

Monthly Archives: August 2013

my life next door

Enjoyability:      smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 394  Copyright: 2012

          Samantha Reed has always been the perfect daughter in her mother’s perfect life. In fact, the only thing marring her mom’s perfect life, serving as Connecticut’s senator and running for a second term, living in a pristine remodeled-and-remodeled-again house with vacuum lines in the  carpet every day, is the house next door– or rather, the family living there. The Garretts. A family with two parents and eight children, constant noise and mess, the landscaping never done and toys strewn all over the yard. Samantha’s mom would like nothing more than for them to move away.

          Incidentally, Samantha, watching them at night from the ledge outside her bedroom, would like nothing more than to join them. Then one night, Jase Garrett appears below her, and suddenly it seems like crossing the yard line may be possible. But even when the yards have been crossed, will the boundary between their worlds find its way between them?

         I thought this book was great. The characters were very vivid and believable. Samantha’s mother was so neurotic and judgmental that I debated whether or not she was believable, but sadly I do think people like her are common enough. Left by Samantha’s father when Samantha and her sister were very young, she resents the way single motherhood has monopolized her life, and is throwing herself into politics as a way to regain the identity she feels she’s lost. Each of the Garretts were individually well-developed, which is impressive considering there were ten of them. Samantha was also well-rounded. I think a lot of YA contemporary-lit female protagonists become formulaic: the sort of insert-yourself-here everywoman that Bella Swan is so often accused of being, supposedly awkward and hinting at geekiness without any concrete geekable interests or noteworthy quirks. Samantha wasn’t like that. She read as a person, not a character; she wasn’t aggressively unique in any big way, but she was unique in the way that all real humans are unique. Responsible and good at swimming, not a romantic pro but has dated before, struggles to stand up to people— just a teenage girl.

            Jase and Samantha had good, organic chemistry. They were very cute! Jase receives very high marks in the swoon department. A+ Would Date. Was he too perfect? He probably should have had a big mess-up at some point in the story; he never really does anything wrong or even gets mad about anything. Still, I liked him.

            Another bonus was Clay, Samantha’s mom’s sleazy boyfriend and campaign manager. Clay was a very well-done villain. He’s realistic because he doesn’t go around cackling and making speeches about his evil plans; like so many real-life creeps, he’s very charming, and it takes everyone– including the reader, maybe– a long time to slowly see him for what he is.

            I really liked Jase’s sister Alice. As a bookish girl, I always admire assertive, level-headed female characters like Alice, who is training to be a nurse and takes control of a situation as soon as she enters it. I noticed that Alice and Samantha’s older sister Tracy were similar in a lot of ways, both famous for going through boyfriends quickly and with the same sort of in-power attitude. Is that a bad thing, making them redundant? I’m not sure. Let me know if you have thoughts. But I definitely think those two could be good friends if not arch enemies.

            And I loved all the scenes with Samantha and the Garretts. Jase’s little siblings were so fun. I also liked the storyline of Tim, Samantha’s best friend Nan’s twin brother who Samantha used to be very close with, but who has gone down a bad path of drug addiction and slackerdom.

            Another thing I noticed, which I rarely do, is that the book could have used a little more scene-building. I struggled a bit to understand where everything was, how things were arranged and how people were moving through the spaces. Just a few more sentences of description here and there would have been helpful.

            I can’t help but comment on how beautiful the physical book is. I think the cover is utterly gorgeous, the sky-blue and yellow color scheme is totally adorable, and the spine of the book is ridiculously cute too. I want to redecorate my life based on this dust jacket. Fetch my life-design team and alert them to the new plan. Plus, the models on the cover are perfect for Jase and Samantha, which is really something considering how often people get that wrong. I LOVE IT.

            My Life Next Door was the best of everything—a romance, but also a meaningful story, well-written and engaging of the mind in a light-hearted way. In the climactic section, things get unexpectedly pretty dramatic and messed up, so be prepared for that; but it just added to the impact of the book. I really enjoyed every chapter of this story and didn’t want to put it down. There were a lot of storylines which were kind of left hanging at the end, for which I would have liked more resolution. But if you’re looking for a fix of contemporary romance with a punch of brains behind it, this is the book for you.        

Special Awards:

sqee  Squee! Good romance.

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theselection

Enjoyability:      smile transpsmile transpsmile transp half graysmile gray transpsmile gray transp

Deep Thoughts: brain2half brain outlinebrain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 327  Copyright: 2012

America Singer is not interested in competing with thirty-four other girls for the hand of Prince Maxon. In the caste-ruled nation of Illéa, her family is just three classes away from homelessness, so yes, they could use the elevation that would come from her participation in the Selection, a program to choose the next princess very reminiscent of the reality show The Bachelor, but the stuffy, suit-wearing young prince she sees on TV doesn’t interest her– and she’s secretly already taken, by Aspen, a boy a caste below her, who she hopes might be thinking of proposing. But when things with Aspen suddenly go sour, and she’s offered a spot in the competition, America sees no alternative to leaving her simple life behind and entering a world of decadent luxury, fierce female competitiveness, and a prince who might be more human than she realized. 

             The Selection was one of those books that I loved… to yell at. Granted, maybe every book I read besides the ones I love fall into that category— the possible future editor in me just loves to critique, so I rarely read anything without enjoyment. The only books I truly don’t enjoy are heavy English-class books that are technically sound but don’t appeal to me, because those I can neither love nor properly complain about. I’m looking at you, In the Lake of the Woods.

            I think this was one of those books where the premise carried the whole thing, and the other aspects let the heavy lifting slip. The main thing that made me feel like I enjoyed reading this book and wanted to keep going was interest in the details of the competition. As someone who’s watched several seasons of The Bachelorette (never the Bachelor, but same difference), I was really curious to see how things would play out, what the challenges or tests for the girls would be, and whether America would fall for Maxon.

            There was a lot of reliance on “telling” emotional descriptions rather than implication through concrete details and body language, as well as repetitive exposition of things that were already clear, which always peeves me. “Maxon looked at me for a moment, clearly wondering if this was really okay.” How did she read that from him? “’Why don’t you run along?’ I said, my annoyance leaking into my voice again.” That was clearly a snarky thing to say; we could have concluded for ourselves that she sounded annoyed. It might sound nitpicky when I isolate quotes like that, but those issues were a common occurrence, and they just made it feel less professional.

            America has two romance lines, with Aspen and with Prince Maxon, but I didn’t really feel a strong investment in either of them. We only really have one love scene with Aspen before America goes to the palace, and it just didn’t quite win me over. Her relationship with Maxon gets more development, but it felt a little forced. I’m not sure I like Maxon; he seems very stiff and sort of in-genuine. Of course, that’s what America thought at first, too, but unlike her, I never really warmed to him.

           There’s a scene early on in the competition where America gets suddenly claustrophobic in her fancy room and makes a crazed, hyperventilating dash for the palace garden, leading to her collapsing when a guard won’t let her out. I’m not a big fan of the writerly trope of people getting so worked up about something that they actually can’t breathe. Have you ever seen someone actually react that way to something? Because I haven’t. I’m an arachnophobe who was once trapped in a small canoe with a spider, and even then, I didn’t lose the ability to breathe. It’s just not realistic. And then Maxon comes to talk to her, and she generally insinuates things about him being a bourgeois prick, and they do the whole “wow, nobody’s ever spoken so sassily to me before, that’s so refreshing and attractive” gambit. *Sigh*

            Another thing that irritated me was that America kept doing the ditsy-heroine thing where she assumed people were having negative feelings towards her which they clearly weren’t. Maxon made it pretty clear from the start that he liked her, but every time they had a minor spat, she’d be convinced he was sending her home first thing the next day.

          Well, do I have anything nice to say? The actual plot really was good. I can tell, because I was motivated to keep picking the book up and reading it. I wanted to know what happens, and I still do—I plan to read the sequel. I liked America’s relationship with her little sister May. That was cute. I liked America’s friend Marlee, and her exuberant maids, Anne, Mary, and Lucy. The intricacies of the country’s caste system were interesting. And of course, the cover is gorgeous.

        One other thought— when I read the blurb for this book, I thought of Gail Garson Levine’s story “The Princess Test”, published in her book The Fairy’s Return. Levine’s story is similar in premise: a number of girls are assembled at a palace to choose which will marry the prince and be the next princess. But instead of just dating the prince like in The Selection, the girls in “The Princess Test” faced a series of princesshood-challenges; for example, they were each served a salad with an offensive sprig of parsley in it (parsley apparently doesn’t belong in royal salad), and they got points if they noticed and picked it out. I was expecting The Selection’s competition to have, obviously not the same challenges, but some form of tests for the girls to go through. I think that would have been fun.   

         And what’s the deal with her last name? A professional singer named America Singer? I assumed at first that people in her society were given names based on their chosen profession, but everybody else has normal names. Seriously… what?

         It wasn’t terrible, it’s just that there are so many phenomenal books out there, and so little time. But if you do decide to read it or have already read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Every Tuesday, the site The Broke and the Bookish posts a prompt for a top-ten-style list, and book bloggers around the web respond to it on their blogs. This week the prompt is the top ten things that make my life as a reader and/or as a book blogger easier. Here are my top seven.

1.) My library! I couldn’t read even a fraction of what I do if I had to pay for every book I read, and my library system is recognized as especially excellent. It’s so great to just click a button online and a few days later have the book I want waiting for me on a shelf with my name on a little slip of paper inside. It’s like magic!

2.) My library website’s new “reading history” function. I’m so excited about this! Now the website has an optional feature to record all the books you check out, which means not only can I remember what I read for my own interest, but it will also be very helpful for future Top Ten Tuesday lists.

3.) My mom. Because to finish the theme of the library, she’s the one who usually escorts my books from the library home to me. She’s also very helpful as a second opinion to discuss the things I read with, since she reads most of the books I do.

4.) Back-of-the-book blurbs. Can you imagine if we had to actually start reading a book just to find out what it’s about and get a sense of if we might like it? Actually, yes I can, because sometimes I pick up a book in a store and find that it has no blurb! It’s very annoying and I almost always put it right back down again.

5.) BOOK STANDS. Whoever invented these deserves some sort of award. Mine is from Barnes and Noble and looks like this:

 book stand

It enables me, primarily, to read while I’m eating. I’m not sure how I would do that without it. It can be a little hard to use with paperbacks if you’re at the very beginning or end of the book, but it’s still a great help.

6.) Meals; because, to go along with the previous thing, no matter how much I have to do, you’ve gotta eat, and most things are hard to do while eating. Darn, I guess I’ll just have to read.

7.) Also from Barnes and Noble: the cute bookends I got a few months ago. I only have one small shelving unit in my bedroom, so even though I don’t own that many books (see #1), I was getting rather pressed for space. But now that I have these bookends, the top of my dresser has been converted into a bookshelf. Very convenient and just more evidence of my natural Interior Design brilliance.

8.) Other book bloggers. When I started this blog, I never anticipated how awesome it would be to read other people’s blogs; I’m getting so many great recommendations, not to mention warnings of books to avoid, and it’s really enhancing my reading experience. Now when I go to a library or bookstore, titles I’ve heard about on other blogs pop out at me everywhere, and I feel very in-the-loop.

9.) The Goodreads monthly new-releases e-mail newsletter. It’s easy to find books, but sometimes I feel like reading a “smart” book, with a lot of meaning and really great writing, and those are harder to identify. I find this list always gives me a lot of really great suggestions. A lot of which I still haven’t gotten to. But one day I will. And that leads me to:

10.) My new TBR (to-be-read) list! I used to just let book recommendations float around in my head, or write them down on various little slips of paper around the house. No more! Now I’m keeping every single title I want to read together and organized in one notebook. The list will probably get pretty long, but then I can go around bragging about it, so that works out.


anna and

Enjoyability:      smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2half brain outlinebrain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 372  Copyright: 2010

Anna Oliphant knows she should be thrilled at her famous novelist father’s less-than-optional offer to send her to an expatriate boarding school in Paris. But the idea of leaving her best friend Bridgette, her mom and little brother, and her coworker Toph, who was finally starting to like her back, during her senior year no less, feels more like crisis than adventure. However, when she arrives at the beautiful and prestigious School of America, Anna finds a city ripe for the exploring, new friends who welcome her into their circle, the all-too-gorgeous and all-too-taken Étienne St. Clair (who has a British accent!!), and a year full of more excitement than she’s had in her past seventeen years put together. It’s boarding school in Paris; could you expect less?

                  I read this book after hearing blogger after blogger speak of their love for it, and I wasn’t disappointed. I really liked, probably even loved this book. What made it so good was the details of the love story, the love interest, St. Clair (*fangirl screaming*), and the icing on the cake, or maybe more like the toast under the jam: the Paris setting, which was so fun! I loved all of Anna and co.’s adventures in the city, visiting little bakeries, dancing to French punk rock, wishing on the mosaic star outside Notre Dame, and of course, trying out different movie theaters. Anna’s love of film really fleshed her out and made her interesting. She wants to be a famous film critic.

                 Anna and the French Kiss was one of the most mechanically solid romance books I’ve read in a long time. An unfortunate plague of the romance genre is that too often you get cheap, unpolished writing, and I end up distracted from the story by the need to shout “yeah, that was implied! You didn’t have to state it explicitly!” “That metaphor was stupid!” “Nobody really talks like that”, etc. Stephanie Perkins’ writing disappeared, which is exactly what it should do. It flowed like melty butter, and allowed me to lose myself in the action and the emotions.

                St. Clair is unbearably hot. That’s all there is to say about it. And haters of insta-love should have no problem with Anna and the French Kiss– Stephanie Perkins really put in a lot of effort to depict the details of Anna and St. Clair’s relationship, making it very clear what they see in each other. All of their conversations and escapades were so unfailingly fun and heart-melting to read. I loved it all.  

                Anna and her friends were all very lifelike and believable teenagers. They all seemed like people I might have actually met at some point (for some reason, Anna’s friend Josh especially stands out to me as believable and reminiscent of real people I know. Does anybody else feel that way?). Well, okay, maybe not St. Clair, because if I had met him in real life, we would be engaged by now (unless boys 1-3 from my previous list of top fictional crushes were also real– I think he’s coming in at around #4). But even he wasn’t too far out of the realm of possibility. Yes, he was pretty darn perfect, but I haven’t given up hope yet that guys like that are out there, and more importantly, what’s a YA romance without a desperately swoon-worthy boy? One of the biggest villains of the story, Amanda, a typical high school ice queen who openly torments Anna for little reason other than jealousy for St. Clair, fell unfortunately into the stereotypical mean-popular-girl cliché; she could have used more dimension. Girls like that do exist, but why does she hate Anna so much so quickly, and how did she get to be so vile?

                  The book hit a rough patch for me in the later-middle section. *Warning: the following passage (colored purple) discusses events from the middle-to-end of the book and could be considered spoilerific.* It started in the scene where Anna sees St. Clair for the first time after returning from winter break, and has a sudden, violent realization of the fact that she’s in love with him— so violent that she literally, physically swoons, collapsing against a table and losing the ability to walk. Blech. Overkill. Then, her new feelings for him manifest themselves as her instantly no longer thinking of him as St. Clair, his last name which everyone calls him, but as Étienne, his first name. What? She’s only even heard his first name once, when he introduced himself the very first time they met. And she’s never called him by it, ever. Nobody besides teachers calls him that. It just seems bizarre and unnatural that she would be taken with a random whim to call him that as a result of loving him. And honestly, I like the name St. Clair a lot better. But moving on. The swooning, “Étienne” incident leads into about a hundred pages of drama, angst, and endless misunderstandings that probably could have been condensed and simplified. It was still fun to read, but after a while I wanted to scream “you love him. He loves you. Just be together already!” One or two cycles of complications could have been taken out. It got a little stretched-out.

                But by the end of the book, the story had my awws and little arm-flaps going again. And I was left with a big brew of warm fuzzies in my stomach. Anna and St. Clair are a couple I believe could last a lifetime, and their story made me happy. Which is really all I ask from a book. It’s definitely going to stay with me for a long time.

Special Awards:

sqee SQUEEEE for romance. Duh!

moon All-Nighter because I didn’t want to put it down.               


200px-WillGrayson

Enjoyability:       smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transp gray

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 304   Copyright: 2010

Will Grayson is a perpetually average guy, overshadowed by his larger-than-life best friend, Tiny, who is currently busy putting on Tiny Dancer, a musical of his life (the indisputably gayest musical ever written, as even he agrees). Meanwhile, elsewhere in his town, Chicago, another boy, also named Will Grayson, is living with clinical depression, unable to connect with anybody except Isaac, his long-distance online boyfriend, who he has never met in person. When the two Will Graysons meet by chance one night, both of them at low points, their storylines intertwine, pushing both of them off their tracks and into the unknown.

                I was coerced and urged over a long period of time to read this book, but I was hesitant, because of my John Green issues. I read Paper Towns a while ago, and enjoyed it well enough, but didn’t love it. Then later I started listening to An Abundance of Katherines on a car trip, but I don’t do that well with listening to books, and the trip wasn’t long enough to get very far in it. So my relationship with John Green has been kind of stalled on the runway, and then came the John Green explosion, with everybody ADORING him (especially since I’ve joined Tumblr, they love him on there), and loving The Fault in Our Stars, which I know is way too sad for me to ever read, and I just started feeling like he was one of those bandwagons that was going to pass me by.

                But I think this was the perfect gateway book to John Green, because he wrote it with David Levithan, who I LOVE LOVE LOVE. And you know what? I couldn’t for the life of me tell which chapter was written by who. John Green’s sections had everything I love about David Levithan—the same sardonic wit, the same loveable, relatable characters, the same awkward, sweet and believable romance. And both authors infuse their writing with meaning and insightfulness that doesn’t feel overdone or preachy.

                Both Will Graysons had my heart. Will Grayson #2 annoyed me a little at first, because he doesn’t capitalize any of his letters, which seemed really affected to me (I still think it would have been stronger without that quirk— his character would have shown through just fine without it, and it’s a tad gimmicky), and also his incredibly bleak and negative outlook got on my nerves. But I realize that’s kind of the point; he gets on his own nerves too, for the very same reasons. Once things started going a little better for him, and I came to understand him better and feel empathy, I came to love and care about him. Will Grayson #1’s story was a delight from the start. Tiny was so fun to read about. In Will’s words, “Tiny Cooper is not the world’s gayest person, and he is not the world’s largest person, but I believe he may be the world’s largest person who is also really, really gay, and also the world’s gayest person who is also really, really large”. I really can’t try to summarize and describe Tiny here, except to say that he’s a force of nature. I really enjoyed reading everything that Will #1 thought, and his romance line was very gripping, cute, and above all, very realistic.

                Another great aspect of this book was the musical storyline. The lyrics from the songs, which are quoted here and there throughout, are highly entertaining, and as a long-time theater participant, I enjoyed all references to the process of putting on the show. It really added to the story.

                The very ending of the book is highly, highly unrealistic. But it was fun.

                John Green and David Levithan clearly make a perfect team. The latter didn’t disappoint me, and the former has earned my trust— at least enough to pick up one of his solo books. We’ll see what happens.

               In any case, yes, Em, I finally read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and yes, you were right.  

Special Awards:

sqee  Squee for Will #1’s romance. It was pretty cute.


la luna y mas

Enjoyability:       smile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile transpsmile gray transp

Deep Thoughts: brain2brain2brain2brain outline transp 2brain outline transp 2

Pages: 435    Copyright: 2013

                All her life, Emaline has watched young tourists in Colby— the seaside town where her family manages rental homes— living it up in a vacation wonderland totally separate from their ordinary lives. And all her life, she’s felt like a piece of scenery in their exciting stories, never having a wild adventure of her own. But the summer before she leaves for college, drama catches up with her. Her long-term boyfriend, Luke, is suddenly leaving her life, and her biological father, who she hasn’t heard from in months, suddenly enters it, along with Theo, a zealous young New Yorker who is assisting a tyrannical Devil Wears Prada-esque filmmaker in creating a documentary about a reclusive local artist. Emaline finds herself caught between the old and the new, the familiar and the mysterious, as she prepares to embark on the beginning of her adult life.  

                This was another solidly entertaining book from Sarah Dessen, queen of contemporary YA. All hail Sarah Dessen! It didn’t surpass some of her previous books for me, but it was still strong. The story wrapped me in, the characters made me care about them, and the whole thing had the polish and irresistible charm that each of her books has. I especially enjoyed reading about the documentary-making process, and about Emaline’s friendship with her hyperactive ten-year-old half brother, Benji. Emaline was a likeable narrator, compassionate, smart, and independent. Some of the supporting characters maybe could have been developed a little further; or maybe it was Emaline’s relationships with them that could have used more development. Some of her friendships and familial relationships were introduced and described a certain way through exposition, and then weren’t pushed and explored as much as they could have been during the actual story. But everyone had their angles, and no one was a caricature.

                Sarah Dessen is always very good at complex, realistic romance. The romantic aspects of the story were full of twists and turns, good and bad, and I was never sure how to feel about who Emaline should choose— which is exactly how Emaline felt, and how real people feel in their actual love lives. It was very well done. And, without giving too much away, she doesn’t shy away from leaving things unsure, rather than needing everything tied up with a bow Ever After, which I think is admirable and a really thing to introduce in books for teenage girls. In the romance and in the platonic sections, no character felt things or did things without good motivation and reason, and that means I was right there with them, having the same feelings and reactions, which makes for emotional engagement with the story. I didn’t have to just accept that a character was angry because it said they were angry; I was angry on my own accord.

                My mom, who also read it, pointed out that we don’t know what Emaline wants to study in college, and I agree that I’m not really sure what she’s hoping to do with her life, which would be nice to know. She also feels that her father’s reasons for being how he is could have been clearer, which I somewhat agree with, but I can also see how it’s not something Emaline will probably ever understand, and that means we don’t really need to, either.

              So The Moon and More hasn’t beat out some of Sarah’s previous novels in my heart, but I very much enjoyed reading it, and am glad to have it as one of the smallish number of books I own. The things I said that were critical were just ruminations, since I felt obligated to say something more concrete than “this is a great book, duh, it’s Sarah Dessen, go read it.” But now that I’ve done my duty: This is a great book. Duh, it’s Sarah Dessen! Go read it!