April 16, 2014

Review: To All the Boys I've Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before By Jenny Han
Available now from Simon & Schuster BFYR
Review copy

I like Jenny Han's novels, but her current (co-written) series doesn't appeal to me.  TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, however, sounded awesome.  Laura Jean Song writes letters to the boys she's crushed on when she's ready to let go of the crush and move on.  When her letters get mailed, she has to deal with the leak of her private feelings.

When I started TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, I was expecting a romance.  If you are expecting a romance, then you'll be disappointed.  The novel's focus is Lara Jean and her personal journey.  Boys are involved, but they're secondary.  Just as important are Lara Jean's sisters.  Margot, the older sister, took over the household after their mother died, but now she's off to college in another country.  Lara Jean misses her sister, but it also gives her some of the space she needs to define herself.  She's lived a cautious, non-confrontational life, but sometimes you have to say what you want and go for it.

That being said, the romantic parts are great.  You see, Lara Jean isn't over one of the boys: Josh.  But Josh was Margot's boyfriend until she moved.  So Lara Jean pretends to be dating Peter, one of the other letter recipients, who happens to want to send a "We are really broken up" message to his ex.  I am so tired of love triangles, but this one worked for me because I wasn't able to predict where it was going.  (At least, not initially.)  Lara Jean's interest in the boys didn't seem plot mandated, nor were they mysterious bad boys who just walked into her life.  She clearly had an interest in both before the book began.

I also enjoyed how Lara Jean's Korean heritage was woven through the story.  She's only half, but obviously Asian.  Most of the time, it doesn't matter, but sometimes it really does, like how all her Halloween costumes are assumed to be Asian characters.  Han really understands that adding specificity to Lara Jean's story makes it more realistic and relatable instead of less.

I think that TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE will appeal to fans of Sarah Dessen and other contemporary YA writers.  There is going to be a sequel, P.S. I STILL LOVE YOU, and I can't wait till next spring to read it.  (Please note that I read the ARC of TO ALL THE BOYS I'VE LOVED BEFORE, and it has been announced that the final book has a longer ending and a couple of extra chapters.  I will update this review after I read the final version if there are any changes relevant to my review.)

April 15, 2014

Review: The Geography of You and Me

The Geography of You and Me By Jennifer E. Smith
Available now from Poppy (Hachette)
Review copy

Popular YA author Jennifer E. Smith takes a real-life blackout in New York and turns it into a story that spans a year and multiple countries.  It is a slight story, although an appealing one.  Lucy and Owen are trapped together in an elevator during the blackout and share an amazing night, but their new bond is strained when they both move.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME takes the one-amazing-night plot of books like BRIGHT BEFORE SUNRISE and asks, "What happens next?"  Smith does excel at the high-concept premise.  She falls a little short, however, in the execution.  Oh, THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is breezy and sweet, but the romance could use some serious beefing up.

The blurb talks about how Lucy and Owen stay in touch and want to reunite.  Stay in touch mostly means that Owen sends brief postcards and Lucy sometimes sends emails Owen never responds to.  Want to reunite means they both date other people and sometimes stop talking to each other altogether.  Don't get me wrong; it's realistic.  Why wouldn't they attempt relationships with people who are right there?  Why wouldn't the pressures of long distance and not knowing each other all that well not get to them?  But I felt like I signed up for a book full of long, romantic communications and that's not what I got at all.

I enjoyed that Lucy and Owen both had developed personalities and families.  When they first meet, neither one is in the best place.  But as they grow through the year, they make decisions to make themselves happier and their perspectives naturally change.  There's some nice character growth for both of them.  It's just that neither of them gets a full chance to shine since they're co-narrators, and their potential keeps coming back to a slight, romantic comedy plotline.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is an enjoyable beach read, and I expect many teens will love it as such.  But it had the potential to be something better.

April 14, 2014

Review: The Winner's Curse

The Winner's Curse Book one of The Winner's Trilogy
By Marie Rutkoski
Available now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux BFYR (Macmillan)
Review copy

I was under the impression that THE WINNER'S CURSE was almost entirely about the romance between Kestrel and Arin.  I was wrong.  Their love for each other drives many of their decisions, but THE WINNER'S CURSE is about much more than two teenagers in love.

Kestrel is the seventeen-year-old daughter of a general, and thus a high-ranking Valorian.  She must marry or enlist in the army by the time she is twenty, but until them she is determined to find her own path.  Things go a bit awry when she stumbles across a slave auction and makes an impulsive purchase of a young Herrani man.  You see, Kestrel lives in the Herrani peninsula, where the Herrani where enslaved after the Valorians took over.  The Herrani are obviously unhappy about this, which Kestrel is a bit blind to, despite her strategic mind.  She is uncomfortable with slavery, however; initially she ignores that she bought a person.  Then she starts using Arin as her escort, for single Valerian women must be escorted and she trusts him to let her do what she wants.

I didn't always buy that Kestrel and Arin fell in love (she owns him!), but I loved the complicated dance between them.  Arin has his own motives and his own clever mind.  Kestrel is terrific at getting out of tricky situations using her powers of observation and intelligence.  Despite my crack at her strategic mind before, THE WINNER'S CURSE is not a case of being told about a character's skills.  Kestrel shows her abilities over, and over.  Thus, THE WINNER'S CURSE is about two capable, crafty survivors who are unwilling to let their people be the one's thrown over the bus.

I wasn't familiar with the term before this, but "the winner's curse" is an auction term referring to win the winner pays too much for what they receive.  Kestrel invokes it when she buys Arin.  And, as the story goes on, it seems that one of them will have to invoke it again, to save either their love or their country.  Author Marie Rutkoski is not afraid of making things complicated.

I devoured THE WINNER'S CURSE in a single afternoon, and the unexpected ending has me eager to read the next book.  The romance between Arin and Kestrel might be a slow burn, but the story is fast paced and thrilling.  Notably, Rutkoski makes both sides sympathetic to the reader.  The characters are sometimes vile and sometimes charming, no matter which side they're on.  Killing people always has weight.  But slavery is always bad, thankfully.  Man, I just have to know how things turn out.

April 11, 2014

Review: The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy

The Vigilante Poets of Selwyn Academy By Kate Hattemer
Available now from Knopf BFYR (Penguin Random House)
Review copy

When NetGalley sent out an email of hot upcoming titles, I was instantly drawn to THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY.  I wanted to know what a vigilante poet was.  Add in that those vigilante poets' nemesis is a reality television show (a very current YA trend), and I was there.

Ethan and his three best friends, Luke, Jonathon, and Elizabeth, are students at Selwyn Academy.  It's an arts academy, where the halls are filled with conversations such as Monet versus Manet.  But lately, the only conversation is about For Arts' SakeFAS is a new reality TV show filming at Selwyn, featuring Selwyn students.  As they discover just how fake the show is, they decide to do something about it.  They'll write, print, and distribute a long poem (inspired by Ezra Pound's Cantos) to protest FAS and rile the student body.  Things don't go as planned when ringleader Luke joins the show and Ethan, Jonathon, and Elizabeth are left to fight alone.

This book is insane and I love it.  Debut author Kate Hattemer does an amazing job of keeping the plot from tipping too far into unreality.  The characters are studying the Cantos in English, which is why they have long poems on the brain.  Ethan doesn't actually get the Cantos all that easily and has to think about one the language means.  (And of course this all means that Pound gets quoted frequently, and his language is as lovely as ever.)  Then there's the poetry by Luke and the others, which is appealing and clever, but not too much so for high school students.

I also really loved the characters of THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY.  Several of the antagonists are just good people who could have done better.  (The vice principal is cartoonishly evil, but what vice principle isn't?  And one of the contestants doesn't have any redeeming features, but that's clearly because narrator Ethan loathes him.)  Ethan is a talented, nice kid, but he clearly has a lot to learn about interacting with people, particularly those he likes.  (Sometimes the book isn't subtle as I'd like about that point.)  The two girl characters are fantastic.  Elizabeth (who I assume is black due to her dreads) is as involved in the plans as any of the boys, makes sure that her point of view is heard, and drives recklessly.  Maura, a contestant on the show and Ethan's crush, really doesn't care how the show portrays her because she just wants the scholarship money to go to Julliard since she can dance.  Maura doesn't think twice about trashing her reputation for her arts' sake. 

I think THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY is a seriously great book.  It delivers and fast and funny story about teenage rebellion while contemplating the many ways reality TV is totally fake, friendship is hard (especially because people change or are never who you thought they were), and the tragically short lives of pocket pets.  It earns that "poets" in its title as well.  The poetry in the book is accessible, but not dumbed down.  THE VIGILANTE POETS OF SELWYN ACADEMY revels in how poetry can be a force.  I am all for that, and all for this book.

April 10, 2014

Review: Darkbound

Darkbound Second book in The Legacy of Moonset series
By Scott Tracey
Available now from Flux (Llewellyn)
Review copy
Read my reviews of Phantom Eyes and Moonset

I thoroughly enjoyed MOONSET, which I called a book about "small towns with secrets, people with secrets, a closely bound found family, black magic, and a protagonist who has a lot to learn" and noted that I was eager for the next book to see how some surprising revelations played out and what other secrets would be uncovered.  It set the stage of five siblings bound my magic, possibly as part of their now deceased parents' villainous master plan.

DARKBOUND's point of view shifts from Justin (the mediator sibling), who narrated MOONSET, to Malcolm (the just-wants-to-be-normal sibling).  It picks up all the threads left open at the end of MOONSET, ties them up with the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and throws in a powerful creep who misunderstands the meaning of love.

I took a bit to warm up to Mal at first.  I really liked Justin the super socially awkward.  Mal gets along with most people pretty well.  It's his siblings, the characters the reader already cares about, who he doesn't quite mesh with.  He wants a freedom that none of the others do.  But warm up to him I did, especially as DARKBOUND began to redeem Jenna (the troublemaking sibling).  Jenna wasn't flat-out awful or anything, but it's nice to see her point of view get some sympathy and for her to get some heroic moments.

I also liked how Mal was rounded out by the things he didn't say and his contradictions.  He clearly has a complicated relationship with his body (possibly an eating disorder) that possibly comes from the lack of control in his life due to his coven bond.  He also only expresses interests in other men, but never outright discusses his sexuality.  He gets along quite well with the head of the witchy Congress, despite the fact that he has a number of reasons to fear and dislike her.  He's unreasonable about magic in a way his siblings aren't, but he's more reasonable about a few things.

DARKBOUND does have it's flaws.  The climax is somewhat confusing, and definitely casts Mal in a different light.  Ash, Justin's girlfriend, disappears from the narrative completely.  There are only a few hints as to what the Moonset coven's ultimate plans were.  (Is this series going to be longer than a trilogy? I don't know.)  However, like its predecessor, it is fun.

I wonder which sibling will narrate next.  Jenna?  I'd love to read a book featuring her, but at the same time younger sibling Bailey and Cole have been shifted to the side.  (Cole certainly displays an intriguing bit of strangeness in DARKBOUND.)  But I'm eager to see where this series goes and how my perception will continue to shift as I read.  After all, like their parents, Justin, Jenna, Mal, Cole, and Bailey might not be the good guys.


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