Damaged: A Review

Damaged by Amy ReedKinsey Cole knows people can only bear to hear so much bad fortune. That’s why everyone in the small town of Wellspring, Michigan knows that Kinsey’s best friend Camille died in a car accident when Kinsey was driving. It’s easier for people to see the straight A student with a full athletic scholarship.

Kinsey is struggling to stick to her own plan for the future now that Camille is dead. She is going to go to college and get away from her small town and her mentally unstable mother once and for all. She is going to succeed the way everyone always expected she would.

The only problem is that Kinsey is quietly falling apart.

When Camille’s boyfriend, Hunter, invites Kinsey on a road trip to San Francisco, Kinsey jumps at the chance to get away from all the memories and start her real life. But with Hunter’s heavy drinking and Kinsey’s own demons, it will take more than a fresh start for either of them to accept everything that has been lost in Damaged (2014) by Amy Reed.

Kinsey and Hunter travel across a largely barren landscape on their way to California in this haunting and well-done novel. An unflinching focus on Kinsey and Hunter makes this character driven road trip story even stronger.

Nightmares that may or may not be her dead best friend plague Kinsey throughout the novel adding a surreal quality to the plot. Reed offers a well-plotted and excellently written meditation on grief, loss and the power of new beginnings in this striking novel about two wretched characters trying to make themselves whole.

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley, Stealing Henry by Carolyn MacCullough, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, A Map of the Known World by Lisa Ann Sandell, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in the September 2014 issue of School Library Journal from which it can be seen in various sites online*

Little Elliot, Big City: A Picture Book Review

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike CuratoElliot is a little elephant living in the big city. Amidst all of the hustle and bustle, Elliot finds a lot of things to enjoy–even with the unique challenges of being a small elephant in a big a city. Elliot especially loves cupcakes! Unfortunately, being so small, it isn’t easy to reach the counter and buy his special treat. When Elliot meets a white mouse who is even smaller than himself, Elliot realizes that new friends can be even sweeter than a tasty cupcake in Little Elliot, Big City (2014) by Mike Curato.

Little Elliot, Big City is Curato’s first picture book.

This delightful story of unlikely friends is visually stunning with beautiful illustrations of bustling New York City streets and even a picture of the iconic Flatiron building. Vintage cars and soft tones make this a quiet read that hearkens back to simpler times.

Elliot is a delightfully quirky and capable main character who is a real problem solver (at one point he uses a broom to get ice cream out of his freezer!). Curato’s sure drawing style and large illustrations bring Elliot to life and add a lovely dose of pathos to Elliot’s meeting with mouse. Readers will cheer when together Elliot and Mouse finally get their cupcake.

Curato’s deceptively simple text and intricate illustrations make Little Elliot, Big City a delight and definitely mark Curato as a picture book talent to watch.

You can also see the adorable book trailer for Little Elliot, Big City here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oRgom8YRnM

Now and Forever: A Review

Now and Forever by Susane ColasantiEven before he started to blow up, Sterling could not believe that Ethan picked her to ask out. Even before he hit a million followers, before his single started airing on the radio, before the concerts and the sold out tour destinations, Sterling knew she was so incredibly lucky to have Ethan Cross as her boyfriend.

Ethan and Sterling click in a way Sterling didn’t think possible. As much as she loves performing culinary experiments and correcting egregious grammatical errors in signs, Sterling loves spending time with Ethan more. As great as hanging out with her friends is, hanging out with Ethan is better.

Then Ethan’s music starts getting noticed and suddenly Ethan is a hot commodity thrown head-first in the world of fame and celebrity. Sterling, much to her initial dismay, is thrown in right beside him.

Ethan is getting compared to Michael Jackson and getting more famous by the second. Meanwhile Sterling finds herself appearing next to Ethan in countless tabloid photos, traveling around the country to catch his sold out shows, and even garnering a small following of her own.

Between her hot boyfriend, the sudden fame, and the free couture, Sterling should be living the dream. The only problem is Sterling is no longer sure whose dream it is in Now and Forever (2014) by Susane Colasanti.

Now and Forever is a bit like an exclusive trip behind the velvet rope; a look at exactly what being famous might mean. Unfortunately, unlike other titles in a similar ilk, this book fails to offer a nuanced picture instead focusing on the glitz and glamor. While Ethan does change as he gains fame throughout the story, the implications of that change or what caused it (privilege, growing up, celebrity in general) are never discussed anymore than Sterling’s own relationship with her fame by association.

While this is a sweet romance, a lot of the story is spent on a bad relationship. Although this focus on the bad makes the second romance that much sweeter, it simultaneously raises questions about why the novel’s plot focuses where it does for so long.

Like all of Colasanti’s heroines, Sterling is adorably romantic. While her absorption in Ethan’s world and identity are troubling, it is an issue that’s addressed before the story ends.

Now and Forever is a must read for any readers who are super into the latest boy band or music in general. Bonus points for anyone who is a celebrity news junkie.

Possible Pairings: Take a Bow by Elizabeth Eulberg, Where She Went by Gayle Forman, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Open Road Summer by Emery Lord, Being Friends With Boys by Terra Elan McVoy, Famous in Love by Rebecca Serle

Criminal: A Review

Criminal by Terra Elan McVoyNikki knows her life isn’t a dream come true. Even the thought of seeing her mother makes Nikki’s skin crawl. Her step-father is in jail. Nikki is a high school drop out.

But she has her friend Bird and her job at the hair salon.

More importantly, Nikki has Dee. Everyone tells her that Dee is no good but Nikki doesn’t believe that. Not really. How can Dee be anything but perfect when he looks so good and makes Nikki feel like this? He even has her initial tattooed on his chest.

When Dee does the unthinkable, Nikki is drawn into a crime that will shatter everything Nikki had taken for granted in her less-than-perfect life. After spending so much time wrapped up in Dee’s world, Nikki isn’t sure what it will take to stand on her own in Criminal (2013) by Terra Elan McVoy.

Criminal is a finalist for the 2014 Edgar Awards for Young Adult Mystery.

In a departure from her lighter fare, McVoy presents a gritty, evocative story of life in the wake of a shocking crime. The novel bends notions of right and wrong while also artfully exploring the idea of complicity as Nikki comes to terms with her own role in Dee’s crime.

Nikki is a flawed, often naive, heroine who has tried to make the best of the blessed little life has given her. She turns a blind eye to Dee’s many faults. She makes mistakes. She is impulsive and quite foolish.

Despite these shortcomings, Nikki’s growth throughout the novel is impressive. While she does not always make the smartest decisions, Nikki is a survivor. Although Criminal is touted as a mystery the main story here is really one about a girl trying to find her way. Even with all of the obstacles she has to face, readers will close this book with a sense that Nikki will make it through.

Possible Pairings: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Blank Confession by Pete Hautman, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, How to Lead a Life of Crime by Kirsten Miller

All Our Yesterdays: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“You have to kill him.”

All Our Yesterdays by Cristin TerrillLocked up in a government facility, Em marks time by staring at the drain in her center of her cell or talking to her fellow prisoner through the wall between their cells. Then, of course, there are the interrogation sessions with the Doctor. But Em tries not to think about those. Or the Doctor.

The only thing keeping her going is the list of instructions written in Em’s own handwriting. Em has tried everything she can think of to prevent the completion of a time machine that will break the world. The list proves that well enough.

But none of her attempts have worked and now Em is left with one last, terrible option.

Marina has loved her neighbor James since forever. More, even, than she loves herself sometimes. Quiet, focused James finally might be seeing Marina as more than a friend when one disastrous night changes everything. Everything Marina previously knew will be thrown into question as she struggles to protect James at any cost.

Em and Marina stand on opposite sides in a race to protect time. Only one of them can come out alive in All Our Yesterdays (2013) by Cristin Terrill.

All Our Yesterdays is Terrill’s first novel.

Alternating between Em and Marina’s narratives, Terrill has created a story that intertwines and connects in clever, unexpected ways. The time travel elements here are wonderfully plausible and key to the plot and all of its surprise reveals.

In addition to an action-packed adventure, All Our Yesterdays is a well-paced, meditative story about the strengths (and limits) of friendship. At the same time Terrill offers a thoughtful, subtle development as Marina come into her own and starts to learn to love herself.

With light science fiction (time travel) elements All Our Yesterdays is a great starting point for readers looking to give sci-fi a try as well as veteran readers. The other arcs regarding friendship and causality promise that this book has a lot to offer every reader. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson, Guardian of the Dead by Karen Healey, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2013*

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah: A (Rapid Fire) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. Freedman (2013)

My Basmati Bat Mitzvah by Paula J. FreedmanThis is one of those books that can skew as either middle grade or a younger YA. Either works and either is appropriate. Tara, our narrator, is a lot of fun with a breezy voice that sounds authentic and true without being bogged down in vernacular or otherwise “talking down” to the reader. I also loved that Tara had supportive, understanding, present parents as well as friends.

Although the story deals with Tara understanding the two sides of her heritage she is largely comfortable in her own skin. Which is huge. There is just so much to like here from the light, fun story to the cover model who looks just like you’d expect Tara to look. This is a story about acceptance and identity but also about more than that. Recommended.

*This book was acquired for review from the publisher at BEA 2012*

How to Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

howtoloveBefore everything went to hell, Reena Montero had loved Sawyer LeGrande for as long as she could remember. Watching Sawyer and wanting him from afar in their small Florida town came as natural as breathing. Sawyer always seemed so distant, so unattainable until one day he suddenly isn’t. After circling each other for years, Reena and Sawyer are finally together for a torrid, messy moment before it all falls apart. Sawyer blows out of town without a word and Reena is left behind. Pregnant.

Almost three years later and Reena has finally made sense of what a life without Sawyer should look like. Her dreams of college are long behind her but most days her daughter Hannah more than makes up for that. Then, quick as he left, Sawyer is back and supposedly a changed man. Reena has her doubts. As these two circle once again all of the ugly parts of their past are brought to light but in the midst of all the painful memories there are some beautiful ones too.

It’s taken Reena years to get over Sawyer LeGrande and make a new life for herself. With so many other changes is it possible to leave all of that past behind for a new future with Sawyer in it in How to Love by Katie Cotugno?

How to Love is Cotugno’s first novel. Chapters alternate between Reena’s “before” as she and Sawyer first get together (told in past tense) and her “after” with Sawyer coming back into town and finding Reena and daughter Hannah. Although the book ostensibly contains two stories (one YA and one more Emerging Adult  since Reena is a mother now) Cotugno expertly blends the two plots together to create one larger narrative that spans years.

This book is extremely well-written. Cotugno is a prize-winning writer and her skill here shines through every page. Reena is a dimensional, realistic narrator. Even with her flaws and extremely poor decisions, Reena is mostly a heroine readers will want to like and want to succeed. Cotugno’s descriptions of Reena’s Florida landscape are evocative and vibrant.

Outside of the lovely writing, How to Love is a book riddled with barely developed secondary characters, a poorly paced plot and a tragically unsympathetic love interest.

Cotugno does a good job conveying the difficulties and stigma Reena faces as a teen mother and also shows the complexities of Reena’s family life. However, many aspects of Reena’s story are presented in a one-sided way. It is never quite explained how this responsible girl winds up pregnant except for her to say that she had thought she and Sawyer were “careful.” The possibility of abortion is explained away with Reena’s religious family but the idea of adoption is never once discussed even in passing.

There is also a strange correlation throughout the story between Reena standing up for herself only to have to face dire consequences (in one instance her father, who has a bad heart, has a heart attack after Reena yells at him). By the end of the story, Reena gains a bit of agency and is able to move past her role as a teen mother to try and make a better life for herself and her daughter. The problem is that all of this agency comes from finding out that Sawyer came looking for Reena before he left town years ago. Reena’s relationship with her best friend is also handled strangely. Allie shifts from an obstacle, coming between Sawyer and Reena’s flirty budding relationship, to a plot device as she becomes part of an inciting incident that brings Reena and Sawyer together.

A lot of how you feel about this book will depend on how you feel about Reena and Sawyer and their supposed epic love that looks a lot like standard lust. Basically Sawyer is a train wreck. He brings out the absolute worst in Reena at every turn before the pregnancy and leaves an impressive wreckage of mistakes in his wake. He is a user in every sense of the word and even Reena knows at the peak of her infatuation that it is only a matter of time before Sawyer implodes.

How to Love is marketed as a story of one couple falling in love twice. The problem is that Sawyer getting even a first chance with Reena makes no sense much less him getting a second one. The fact that Reena is continuously drawn to Sawyer after seeing him at his worst again and again exhibits the worst kind of self-destructive behavior.

Possible Pairings: The Secret Life of Prince Charming by Deb Caletti, Something Like Fate by Susane Colasanti, The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen, Such a Rush by Jennifer Echols, Golden by Jessi Kirby, Blue Plate Special by Michelle D. Kwasney, The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by April Genevieve Tucholke, Unbreak My Heart by Melissa C. Walker, The Secret Sisterhood of Heartbreakers by Lynn Weingarten, Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff