Birthday: A Review

cover art for Birthday by Meredith RussoEric and Morgan would never have become friends if it weren’t for their shared birthday. Their families being trapped at the hospital together for three days during a freak blizzard in September also helped. Since then, since before they can even remember, Eric and Morgan have always celebrated their birthday together.

But it turns out being friends forever doesn’t guarantee that things will stay the same forever. It starts when they’re thirteen. Morgan isn’t happy and knows she needs help. But she doesn’t know how to articulate that she’s suffering and feels trapped. Especially if it means hurting her father–the only parent she has left–or losing Eric.

Eric doesn’t know how to balance the person he wants to be with the person his father expects. He knows that he could be popular and maybe happier if he focuses more on football. But how can he do that if it means leaving Morgan behind?

Over the course of five birthdays Eric and Morgan will drift together and grow apart. There will be breakups, make ups, secrets, and surprises. But through it all they’ll always have each other in Birthday (2019) by Meredith Russo.

Russo’s sophomore novel plays out across five birthdays, following Eric and Morgan in alternating chapters from the age of thirteen to eighteen as they come of age in small town Tennessee.

Birthday is a high concept story with a lot of heart. Russo capitalizes on a unique structure to showcase the growth and changes that both Eric and Morgan face as they try to decide who they want to become. While Morgan struggles to find the strength and vocabulary to articulate that she is transgender and live as her true self, Eric has to figure out how to break out of his father’s toxic orbit before he crashes.

Eric and Morgan are dealing with hard things and the bleakness of that, the isolation when it feels like no one can possibly care or understand, is sometimes hard to read. Despite this heaviness, Birthday shows how both characters find a way through. Their character arcs also emphasize how important it is to find support as both Eric and Morgan build support systems with family, friends, and in Morgan’s case an understanding therapist.

Birthday is an important, timely novel. Themes of acceptance, fate, and of course love add nuance and depth to this unique and hopeful romance. A must read.

Possible Pairings: Hope and Other Punchlines by Julie Buxbaum, The Last True Poets of the Sea by Julia Drake, Our Year in Love and Parties by Karen Hattrup, Four Days of You and Me by Miranda Kenneally, First and Then by Emma Mills, The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

The Silver Linings Playbook: A (book and movie) Review

The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew QuickPat believes in happy endings. Even in the slightly messed up movie of his own life. When he can finally leave the bad place, Pat is sure that Apart Time with his beautiful wife is about to end. The movie has gone on long enough. It’s time for his happy ending.

To prove that Pat deserves his happy ending, he is doing all of the right things. He is trying to be kind instead of right. He is working out to get in better shape. He is reading literature so he and his wife will have things to talk about. He is even taking his meds (mostly).

But while Pat is desperate for Apart Time to end, distractions keep getting in the way. First he meets Tiffany–who is crazy. Crazier that Pat by a lot. Who insists on being his friend. Then he somehow becomes a part of his family’s complex game day rituals to cheer on the Eagles every Sunday.

Then things get really weird. Kenny G–the man Pat fears above all others–keeps turning up at inopportune moments. He is somehow part of a dance recital. And the Eagles might not make it to the playoffs at all.

Pat believes in happy endings. He knows he deserves his happy ending. What Pat doesn’t know is what to do when the happy ending he hoped for is the exact opposite of the one he might get in The Silver Linings Playbook (2008) by Matthew Quick.

If Matthew Quick is a rockstar writer, this book is his gold record complete with a cover (in the form of a movie adaptation).

I saw the movie for my birthday earlier this year and I really loved it. After seeing One Day in theaters and watching a character get hit by a bus, I had been weary of “grown up” movies (and books for that matter) but after some research I determined there weren’t any freak accidents in this story so I was good to go. Already being a fan of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, I was ready to be impressed by the movie. And I was. Everything worked and everything came together to make a charming and engaging story.

Much later (because of the huge library hold queue) I was able to pick up a copy of the book that inspired the movie.

There are quite a few differences. The plot was tightened up and stretched for the movie to make it more cinematic (and plot-driven since we can’t just listen to Pat talk for two hours on-screen). The changes made sense and, above all, they worked for the new medium. The result was a book that was still gripping and incredibly well-written but a movie that was a bit more whimsical.

While the film touches the surface of Pat and Tiffany’s problems, the book shows that these characters are really broken. There are missing pieces, and parts that don’t fit, and they’re just trying to hold it all together one day at a time. That messiness isn’t as prevalent in the movie.

The main reason I enjoyed this book is its optimism. Pat’s a mess. Tiffany is a disaster. But they’re trying. They might even be learning. Along the way Pat has several pitfalls but he also makes friends and finally makes it to his own happy ending in a way that feels natural while still leaving room for the sense of wonder that Pat manages to find in even the smallest of silver linings.

Pivot Point: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Pivot Point by Kasie WestAddison Coleman always knows the right choice to make, the right path to take. She knows because she is cautious and a compulsive planner who likes to follow the rules. She also knows because of her ability, Divergence.

Being Divergent isn’t the coolest ability in the paranormal compound Addie calls home. She can’t erase memories like her best friend Laila or move things with her mind like the Telekinetics on the school football team.

Instead, when faced with a choice Addie can Search her future and see both outcomes for any given decision.

Most of the time Addie’s ability is downright boring.

When Addie’s parents announce they are getting divorced, her ability suddenly becomes much more important.

One Search six weeks in the future should be more than enough to make the decision of which parent to live with. In one future Addie can find true love and happiness while in the other there is a promise of popularity and excitement. But in either Search there is also something much more dangerous and the potential for a terrible loss.

At a crossroad that will change everything, Addie will have to decide what she is willing to live through and who she is willing to lose in Pivot Point (2013) by Kasie West.

Pivot Point is West’s first novel. (She already has the sequel slated for 2014 called Split Second and an unrelated contemporary novel called The Distance Between Us is due out in the interim.)

Pivot Point is a really fun book!

West provides all of the best parts of books about parallel universes and time travel without the messy (and sometimes sloppy) explanations. The world building here and the rules for the paranormals’ abilities are seamless.

Told in chapters that alternate between both paths* Pivot Point is a sleek, original story with perfect pacing. Alternating between key events, West brings the storylines together in clever ways while keeping readers on their toes.

Filled with mystery, romance and just the right amount of witty banter, Pivot Point is an utterly appealing blend of fantasy/sci-fi elements in a contemporary setting.

*Each chapter cleverly starts with a definition of a word that includes the phrase “Para” or “Norm” for easy differentiation.

Possible Pairings: Loop by Karen Akins, Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, In Some Other Life by Jessica Brody, The Infinity of You & Me by J. Q. Coyle, Two Summers by Aimee Friedman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen, The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig, Once a Witch by Carolyn MacCullough, Hourglass by Myra McEntire, Parallel by Lauren Miller, Soulprint by Megan Miranda, Fair Coin by E. C. Myers, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Shadow Society by Marie Rutkoski, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Time Between Us by Tamara Ireland Stone, All Our Yesterdays by Cristin Terrill

Stupid Fast: A Review

Stupid Fast by Geoff HerbachFelton Reinstein is not stupid funny much as he would like to be. Even people who like him don’t laugh at his jokes, forget the people who don’t like him. Until his voice dropped and he hit a major growth spurt, Felton wasn’t anything special.

Then he started growing. The he got fast. Felton Reinstein is not a fast name. But Felton is stupid fast all the same.

In the span of one surreal summer Felton has a chance to remake himself. He can stop being the kid with the weird mother and the prodigy-piano-player little brother. He can stop hanging out with the Peter Yangs of the world and show everyone (especially that jerk Ken Johnson) what he’s really made of.

Maybe Felton can even impress the beautiful girl he finds on his borrowed paper route. He might even be able to find his place in his miniscule town and his own family. This is the summer Felton Reinstein finally knows he’s fast. This is the summer Felton Reinstein goes from joke to jock in Stupid Fast (2011) by Geoff Herbach.

Find it on Bookshop.

Stupid Fast was a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction. It was also selected as the winner for the 2011 Cybils in YA Fiction by myself and my fellow judges.

This is one of those books that has the potential for strong appeal along with a unique voice. The atmosphere of the book is top-notch conveying both a sense of small town pride** and team camaraderie that, I imagine, is what a sports team is supposed to look like.

Unfortunately, it also took a really long time for the story to actually start. Felton talks a lot in the beginning about growing hair and growing taller. Instead of the emphasis on that it would have been nice to get right to the plot soon instead of having Felton tease readers with foreshadowing or coy asides.

Felton and the plot pull themselves together during the second half of the story, but whether that is enough to hold a reader’s interest is a matter of personal taste. I’m still not sure I would have been invested enough to finish had I found this book on my own time.

Stupid Fast really does have a lot going for it though. A sports story told by a boy who doesn’t think he’s an athlete* this book never gets lost in sports jargon. The book remains approachable even when the focus shifts to football during key scenes. Felton is a fun narrator with his own quirks and occasional charms. Stupid Fast has a lot of heart after its rocky start.

*Despite the raw talent, Felton does not actually know how to play football. Shh, don’t tell the coach!

**Eventually, granted.

Possible Pairings: Bunheads by Sophie Flack, The Art of Holding On and Letting Go by Kristin Bartley Lenz, Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, Fracture by Megan Miranda, Saving Francesca by Melina Marchetta, Being Sloane Jacobs by Lauren Morrill, Au Revoir, Crazy European Chick by Joe Schreiber, Wild Awake by Hilary T. Smith

Leverage: A Review

Leverage by Joshua CohenDanny knows he’s small. He knows in terms of the pecking order at his school he falls near the very bottom (but above the Cross Country Runners at least). Doesn’t matter. He has a plan. Sure everyone makes fun of the boy’s gymnastics team–especially the varsity football players. They can laugh all they want when it gets him a full scholarship to a college of his choice. Danny is going places. All he has to do is keep his head down and stay out of the way of the football giants until he graduates. Easy.

Kurt Brodsky doesn’t care about high school politics. When you’re as big as Kurt is, you don’t have to. Classes, friends, sports. Doesn’t matter. As long as he can lift weights to stay strong and try to keep his past buried, it’s fine. No one is going to hurt him ever again. If part of that means joining the Oregrove High football team, fine.

Except nothing about the football team is simple. Not when the players keep taking questionable “supplements.” Not when the players can stomp anyone who looks at them funny in the halls. Not when the rivalry and tension between the football and gymnastics teams escalates to something violent and ugly.

Danny and Kurt should have never started to talk. They sure as hell shouldn’t have liked each other. But they did. That happened. If they can find the courage to work together maybe they can make this violent, ugly thing better. They can’t fix it or change it. But maybe they can make some things right in Leverage (2011) by Joshua C. Cohen.

Leverage is the first novel by Cohen who, before writing, parlayed his own high school gymnastics training into a professional career. Leverage was also a finalist for the 2011 Cybils in Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it.

Told in chapters alternating between Danny and Kurt’s narrations, Leverage is a book with great characters and strong writing. Cohen captures two authentic, distinct voices with Kurt and Danny while shedding light on what being a high school football player or gymnast really feels like.* I just wish the book had a different plot.

This is a gritty, brutal, painful story about a school being torn apart by something that is supposed to bring people together: team sports. While Cohen provides an unblinking look at some harsh realities, the execution is not ideal with gaping plot holes, unanswered questions, and an ending that pushes the limits of believability on almost every level.**

Leverage is a strange, tense read. Although it is filled with authentic details, the story has erratic pacing and ultimately lacks any real sense of resolution even after drawing readers in and making them care so much about these characters for the entire 425 (hardcover) pages.

The book will no doubt appeal to sports fans and athletes as well as anyone looking for a book that doesn’t flinch from the harsher side of reality. It will not work as well for readers who like every question raised in a story to also be answered.

*I read this book a month ago and the idea of a school gymnastics team still blows my mind. It never occurred to me that such a thing could exist. (I went to a really small, non-sporty school.)

**Not to mention being largely predictable. If you’ve finished the book you’ll probably see what I mean.

Possible Pairings: Everybody Sees the Ants by A. S. King, Boy Toy by Barry Lyga, Fury by Elizabeth Miles, Mostly Good Girls by Leila Sales, Between by Jessica Warman