The Opposite of Here: A Review

“There’s always somewhere else I want to go, but when I get there I always want to leave.”

cover art for The Opposite of Here by Tara AltebrandoThe last thing Natalie wants to do for her seventeenth birthday is go on a “sail-a-bration” cruise with her parents and best friends. Even nine months after her boyfriend died in a car accident it still feels too soon.

But once the plan is in motion, Natalie realizes there’s nothing she can do to stop it.

Her best friends Lexi, Nora, and Charlotte are excited so Natalie tries to be too. Lexi is ready for all the fun the cruise has to offer–especially if her boyfriend Jason never has to hear about it. Nora has been down for a while and Natalie hopes that maybe the cruise will do her some good. Maybe she’ll even find a new guy to like, it’s been a while. Charlotte is used to keeping a low profile at school and following the rules. On the cruise no one cares if she’s black enough or white enough–she can just be herself.

Natalie’s low expectations for the cruise rise when she unexpectedly meets a cute guy. He’s funny and exciting and Natalie’s attraction is immediate. But she doesn’t see him after their moonlit conversation and he blows off their plans to meet later.

At first the rejection stings and Natalie is prepared to move on. But then she starts to wonder if there might be more to it than that. How can a guy disappear on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean? Is it crazy to think he might have jumped?

Natalie isn’t sure where to start when she doesn’t even know his name. But she knows she has too look. The only problem is that the harder Natalie looks for answers, the more questions she seems to uncover in The Opposite of Here (2018) by Tara Altebrando.

Altebrando’s latest standalone thriller is a perfect balance of suspense and intrigue as Natalie begins to investigate the bizarre disappearance of the guy she meets on the first night of her cruise.

Instead of chapters the novel is broken into days with the cruise itinerary marking the start of each new section. Assigned by her film studies teacher to shoot a two line film during the cruise, Natalie also imagines various scenarios in short screenplay snippets.

While not quite unreliable, Natalie is a restrained narrator holding back information from readers, and maybe even form herself, as she tries to move past the worst events of the last year. She is sardonic, capable, and singular in her search for the (possibly) missing boy.

Because of its short length and close focus on Natalie the rest of the characters in The Opposite of Here can feel less dimensional by comparison although they do each have their own arcs–something Natalie and readers realize together as Natalie comes to understand that she wasn’t the only one affected by her boyfriend’s death or the events of the cruise.

Taut pacing and menace imbue the pages as the narrative toes the line between reality and the power of suggestion in this story that asks readers to separate fact from fiction. The Opposite of Here is a tense thriller sure to keep readers guessing right until the last page. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Leaf Reader by Emily Arsenault, Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen, Genuine Fraud by E. Lockhart, One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus, Fragments of the Lost by Megan Miranda, Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roerhig, The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, Bad Girls With Perfect Faces by Lynn Weingarten

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

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Fragments of the Lost: A Review

Jessa so doesn’t want to clear out her ex-boyfriend Caleb’s room after he dies. It’s hard enough to grieve and dodge questions about how she’s managing. But when his mother asks, she can’t say no. Jessa knows this is her penance—her punishment for being part of the puzzle of Caleb’s last day.

She can’t explain why Caleb was at her track meet that day anymore than anyone else can. She only knows what came after. His drive along the bridge as it flooded, the car crash, the body that was never found.

As Jessa sorts through Caleb’s possessions and begins the tedious, painful work of packing everything away she starts to remember details from the start of their relationship when things were still fresh and there was so much to learn. These pieces of his life also bring back painful memories of the end of their relationship and the distances that eventually grew between them.

As Jessa delves deeper into Caleb’s life she realizes his room might hold secrets to that strange last day and his death. She also realizes she might not be the only one looking in Fragments of the Lost (2017) by Megan Miranda.

Miranda delivers an eerie and atmospheric mystery in this latest standalone. Narrated by Jessa the novel moves through time with chapters marking Jessa’s present weekend project clearing out Caleb’s room and the past with chapters named for items Jessa discovers that bring up memories of her year-long relationship with Caleb. This premise is used to good effect to demonstrate Jessa’s (often self-imposed) isolation in her grief and her desperation to understand what really happened on the day Caleb died.

A taut narrative told over a short span of time amps up the tension as Jessa slowly begins to realize that something is incredibly wrong. While the big twist might be easily predicted by habitual mystery readers, Jessa’s arc throughout the novel is strong enough to still make for a compelling read. Recommended for readers looking for a chilling page turner and fans of mysteries or thrillers.

Possible Pairings: I Was Here by Gayle Forman, Forget Me by K. A. Harrington, Charlie, Presumed Dead by Anne Heltzel, The After Girls by Leah Konen, Suicide Notes from Beautiful Girls by Lynn Weingarten

Jane, Unlimited: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” -Arthur C. Clarke

—–

“There are many lives in every life.”

Jane’s life has always been ordinary and she has never minded that. When her Aunt Magnolia dies under strange circumstances, Jane is suddenly adrift and alone. She doesn’t know exactly how Aunt Magnolia died. She doesn’t know if she wants to go back to college. All she really knows is that if she is ever invited to Tu Reviens, she has to go. It was the last thing Aunt Magnolia asked her to do.

When Kiran Thrash, an old acquaintance who is as wealthy as she is mercurial, breezes back into Jane’s life with an invitation to the Thrash family gala at none other than Tu Reviens Jane immediately accepts.

The island mansion is not at all what Jane expects. Strange figures lurk in the shadows. Art goes missing and reappears at will. An ex-wife hides in the attic, while a current wife is missing entirely. Then there’s Jasper, the lovable Bassett Hound who has an uncanny attachment both to Jane and to a painting with a lone umbrella.

In a house filled with questions, Jane knows that all she has to do is follow the right person to get answers. But first she has to choose in Jane, Unlimited (2017) by Kristin Cashore.

Jane, Unlimited is Cashore’s latest standalone novel. Inspired by Choose Your Own Adventure stories among other things this novel reads as five interconnected stories spanning genres.

After enjoying but not quite loving Cashore’s Graceling trilogy, I was fully prepared for Jane, Unlimited to be the Cashore book that I would love unequivocally. I’m happy to say this genre-bending delight did not disappoint.

The novel opens with “The Missing Masterpiece” (my favorite story) where Jane tries to find a missing Vermeer and make sense of myriad clues in a mystery reminiscent of The Westing Game. This section also does all of the heavy lifting introducing Jane, her deceased Aunt Magnolia, Kiran Thrash, and her rakish and charismatic twin brother Ravi. This novel also introduces Jane’s umbrella making–a motif that helps tie all of the novel’s pieces together.

In “Lies Without Borders” Jane explores the mystery of the missing painting from a different angle in a sleek spy story that will appeal to fans of Ally Carter. The madcap action and continuously surprisingly and charming characters make this section another favorite.

Cashore turns her eye to horror in “In Which Someone Loses a Soul and Charlotte Finds One.” After finishing this creepy tale you won’t be able to look at your library or your favorite books in quite the same way. When you re-read this book on a structural level (and trust me, you’ll want to) this section is also key for highlighting the structure of the novel.

“Jane, Unlimited” is the section that ties the book together so I won’t tell you too much that could spoil the story. There are zany clothes, mayhem, frogs, and a lot of Ravi which makes this story a delight. Sure to be a favorite for fans of Douglas Adams and Dr. Who.

This novel wraps up in “The Strayhound, the Girl, and the Painting” in which some mysteries are solved and some bigger questions are raised as Jane figures out why, exactly, Jasper the Bassett Hound is so very fond of her. This whimsical segment concludes the story on an optimistic note as Jane (and readers) realize that when one door closes another opens–literally.

Jane, Unlimited is a thoughtfully layered and intricately plotted novel. Depending on how you want to read it this book could contain five separate but overlapping stories, it could be one arc where all these outcomes eventually come to pass. There’s really no wrong way to interpret this story which is part of the charm. Whatever appeals to you about Jane and her adventures I guarantee you will find it in at least one part of this novel.

I first hear about Jane, Unlimited during a job interview at Penguin for a job I didn’t even come close to getting. Back then the book was just some new contemporary novel that Cashore was working on and I didn’t think much of it at the time. When it finally came time to read the book, I found that I could think of little else. Around the time of that interview I found out that one of my aunts had suffered a stroke that would prove fatal–something I didn’t know when I kept calling and calling to tell her about scheduling that job interview and asking her advice on what to wear and to practice questions. I don’t remember the last conversation I had with my aunt but I remember those messages I left her vividly. And I so wish I could have told her how this all came together in such a strange full circle way as Jane’s aunt Magnolia was such a big part of Jane’s story as she tries to figure out which path to choose.

In case it wasn’t already clear: I loved this book. It’s perfect and everything I want. Cashore populates the story with a cast of characters that is thoughtfully inclusive and painfully charming and expertly blends genres and plays them against each other throughout this clever novel.

Jane, Unlimited is a must read for anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, readers who like their books to resemble puzzles, and, of course, for anyone looking for an excellent story. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, In Some Other World, Maybe by Shari Goldhagen,The Irish Game: A True Story of Crime and Art by Mathew Hart, Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft by Simon Houpt, Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne, A Corner of White by Jaclyn Moriarty, Where Futures End by Parker Peeveyhouse, The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin, The Square Root of Summer by Harrier Reuter Hapgood, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Ocean Soul by Brian Skerry, Oceanic Wilderness by Roger Steene, Parallel Universes by Max Tegmark (as seen in Scientific American, May 2003), The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

If you are interested in some of the art that inspired (or features) in this novel:

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration at BookExpo 2017*

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter: A Review

Julia’s life is in freefall after her older sister is hit by a truck on her way home from work. Julia always knew her sister, Olga, was the favorite but watching her parents fall apart along with dealing with her own grief is overwhelming. Julia copes by looking into Olga’s life–something she was never very interested in when Olga was alive–but Julia ends up with more questions than answers and soon realizes that knowing the truth doesn’t always lead to closure in I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (2017) by Erika L. Sánchez.

I am happy this book exists but I am 100% not the audience for it which I think influenced my lukewarm feelings about it. Julia is an interesting narrator–it’s still rare to see girls being unapologetic about being unhappy and being themselves, two things that come across immediately in Julia’s story. That Julia is Mexican American adds another dimension to the narrative and makes her voice even more badly needed.

Sánchez’s writing in this novel is authentic and literary without being neat. Sometimes Julia uses course language, sometimes she isn’t polished. But she’s always real and so is the Chicago neighborhood she inhabits–things that I am sure contributed to this book’s nod for the National Book Award long list.

In its review of this book, Kirkus points out that Julia isn’t likable. I don’t think she has to be and I don’t think we’re going to get very far as a society until we stop demanding female characters be likeable at all times. That said, sometimes Julia’s discontent felt a little vague. I wanted to know more about why she feels so unsatisfied and always has been. It’s never quite explained in the text.

There’s a lot going on in this book with side plots; some to good effect, some with unrealized potential. Julia is always striving and learning and while she isn’t always the nicest character, her growth over the course of the novel is all the more satisfying because of it.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter is a story about a first generation American trying to do the best she can. Give this to readers looking for a new story of the immigrant experience, readers who need their characters to be real rather than sweet, and above all give this to anyone looking for a character who loves art and words as much as they do.

Possible Pairings: Saints and Misfits by S. K. Ali, What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen, And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins, Gabi, A Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero, How to Save a Life by Sarah Zarr

What to Say Next: A Review

Kit doesn’t know why she decides to avoid her best friends Annie and Violet at lunch. Or maybe she does. Ever since her father died in a car accident, it feels like no one knows how to talk to Kit or what to say to make it better. No one seems comfortable with Kit’s grief and sadness–not even her own mother.

David is floored when Kit sits at his lunch table–the first time anyone has in the 622 days he has attended Mapleview High School. David doesn’t necessarily mind sitting alone. It’s nice to have some quiet in the middle of a too-noisy day and sometimes it’s too hard to figure out what to say to people without being able to check his notebook to see if they are someone he–and his older sister Mini–thinks David can trust.

Nothing about Kit and David’s friendship makes sense on the outside but Kit appreciates David’s bluntness and his honesty. David, meanwhile, finally feels like he’s found someone who might be okay with David being himself. As they grow closer, Kit asks for David’s help understanding the inevitability (or not) of her father’s death which leads to a truth that might end their friendship forever in What to Say Next (2017) by Julie Buxbaum.

This standalone contemporary novel alternates first person perspective between David and Kit.

David is smart and self-aware despite his lack of emotional intelligence. He knows his limitations and strengths. He also knows how people are likely to perceive him because of his position on the autism spectrum and the coping mechanisms he has employed to continue to function in a sometimes overly stimulating school environment. Kit is still adjusting to life without her father–the parent who was always the one to nurture in the past–while also negotiating life in her small town as a girl who is biracial (Kit’s mother is Indian).

Seeing a neurologically diverse male lead alongside a heroine who is described as curvy and having brown skin is fantastic and makes this an obvious book to highlight and promote. That said, Buxbaum tackles a lot in this novel with varying levels of success.

David and Kit have distinct voices but the way other characters engage with David is often frustrating and demonstrates a fundamental lack of both empathy and understanding a person on the autism spectrum may engage with the world. The fact that David’s behavior is used as a plot point for one of the main conflicts between himself and Kit makes this treatment even more frustrating.

What to Say Next is an entertaining novel with unique characters, an engaging plot, and a cute romance. Readers looking for a quick but substantive diversion will enjoy this story that blends themes of connection with grief and family. Recommended for readers seeking a romance that will broaden their horizons.

Possible Pairings: Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen, Royals by Rachel Hawkins, Letters to the Lost by Brigid Kemmerer, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, This Adventure Ends by Emma Mills, Lucky in Love by Kasie West

This Adventure Ends: A Review

Sloane doesn’t have a lot of expectations when her family moves from New York City to a small Florida town to help her writer father find inspiration. In fact, Sloane doesn’t have many expectations about anything. She’s used to being a loner and focusing her singing and her family. It’s always been fine.

A chance encounter at a party draws Sloane into the vibrant and unexpected world of social media sensation Vera, her twin brother Gabe, and their close-knit group of friends. Sloane never thought she’d fit in so well with anyone. Until she does.

When a treasured painting by the twins’ deceased mother disappears, Sloane wants nothing so much as to help them. On her hunt to track down the painting and get it back, Sloane learns more about her new friends and herself as she discovers that some adventures can end unexpectedly while others are just the beginning in This Adventure Ends (2016) by Emma Mills.

This standalone contemporary focuses on characters with a meandering plot that gives Sloane and her new friends plenty of room to shine–particularly when it comes to Frank Sanger who remains one of the most enigmatic (and sadly minor) characters. Sloane’s first-person narration is relaxed and witty, filled with slick descriptions of her new surroundings and clever barbs about her new social group.

This Adventure Ends branches out from Sloane’s initial quest for the missing painting to explore the nature of creativity, grief, and even ambition. Sloane’s father, a Nicholas Sparks type writer, adds another dimension to this story with his own explorations of fan fiction and authorial intent. Sloane’s mother and younger sister, by contrast, remain woefully one-dimensional and serve as little more than a tantalizing missed opportunity for more complex characterization.

Although this story doesn’t tie everything up neatly, it does suggest that most problems can be solved even if it isn’t always in the way we hope or expect–a comforting thought for teens facing college on the horizon. Quality writing and fascinating characters elevate this promising if familiar story and hint at what Mills will accomplish in future projects. This Adventure Ends is an introspective diversion recommended for readers seeking a smart, summery read.

Possible Pairings: What to Say Next by Julie Buxbaum, Words in Deep Blue by Cath Crowley, In a Perfect World by Trish Doller, Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins, Even in Paradise by Chelsea Philpot, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider

Kissing in America: A Review

Kissing in America by Margo RabbEva Roth’s father died two years ago. She tells everyone it was the result of a heart attack because the real answer–that he died in a plane crash–is too sensational and messy. No one asks more questions about a heart attack.

Eva’s father was always the one who understood her, the one she’d sit with and write. In his absence Eva feels more friction than anything else when it comes to her women’s studies professor mother–something her mother suspects is at the root of Eva’s love of romance novels.

When Eva meets Will Freeman it seems like she might have found someone who really understands. Someone who can possibly help her to move past her grief. Until he moves away.

Afraid of losing Will and everything he promises, Eva and her best friend Annie Kim make a plan to travel across the country to find Will again. Along the way Eva and Annie will see unexpected pieces of the country and learn some surprising things about love in Kissing in America (2015) by Margo Rabb.

Kissing in America is Rabb’s followup to her YA debut Cures for Heartbreak. This novel treads similar territory as Eva tries to find her way through grief and her teen years. Although it is often touted as a light romance and a summery read, this story is filled with melancholy and very much mired in Eva’s grief.

Rabb’s writing remains superlative and evocative. Eva’s love of poetry also plays out in the novel with references to and poems from Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, Nikki Giovanni, Marie Howe, and other authors add another layer to this story. While this book is marketed as a romance, it is really Eva’s relationship with her best friend and with her mother that makes Kissing in America shine.

Eva’s mother in an interesting character who is a vocal feminist and a women’s studies professor. She terms Eva’s love of romance novels as a rebellion which never quite rings true as the romance genre is one where women are able to dominate the market and a genre that is often referenced for its feminist elements and even promoting female equality. That this never comes up in the story remains a frustrating omission.

Kissing in America is a thoughtful and witty road trip story about best friends, family, grieving and, of course, love. Recommended for readers looking for a smart read that will have them smiling through the tears.

Possible Pairings: Suffer Love by Ashley Herring Blake, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Wild Swans by Jessica Spotswood, Black and White by Paul Volponi, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood, After Tupac and D Foster by Jacqueline Woodson