Spontaneous: A Review

Spontaneous by Aaron StarmerMara Carlyle’s class is thrown into chaos when Katelyn Ogden explodes in the middle of third period calculus. After Katelyn’s untimely demise more seniors start blowing up. After suspecting terrorism, suicide, and other sundry conspiracies, the town of Covington soon realizes that the high school seniors are falling victim to spontaneous combustion.

No one knows why it’s happening. No one knows who might be next.

All Mara and her best friend Tess want to do is make it to graduation in one piece. But that might be harder than they think as students keep popping with no obvious pattern or warning. Mara’s senior year is going to have love, friendship, drugs, and even more explosions than the usual high school drama would suggest in Spontaneous (2016) by Aaron Starmer.

Mara’s first-person narration is dark, no-nonsense, and sometimes blatantly insensitive as she tries to make sense of her friends and classmates blowing up. She deals with the stress and the possibility of her own eventual demise with humor and avoidance.

Starmer’s prose is snappy and substantive. Like many critically acclaimed novels, Spontaneous strikes a good balance between philosophical and absurd. Unfortunately, much of the story also feels like it is being spoon-fed to readers with heavy-handed descriptions and plotting.

Spontaneous isn’t the first quasi-literary YA novel to be written by a male author with a female protagonist. It also won’t be the last. Unfortunately, and this speaks to a number of potential flaws in the text, nothing about this book makes it matter that Mara is a girl. She could be anyone from any background. Nothing about her feels distinct or unique, begging the question why is this her story and not the story of one of the other unlucky seniors at Covington High School?

Throughout the novel, Mara keeps readers at a remove both from herself and from the other characters who populate the novel. While possibly a deliberate decision by Starmer, it does little to endear Mara to readers or generate much interest in her story.

Unfortunately an interesting premise and strong writing are not enough to make Spontaneous a compelling story. Spontaneous is a wacky, macabre novel sure to appeal to fans of Grasshopper Jungle.

Possible Pairings: Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes, Going Bovine by Libba Bray, Deadline by Chris Crutcher, Hot Pterodactyl Boyfriend by Alan Cumyn, Hellhole by Gina Damico, We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson, Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith, We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach

*An advance copy of this title was acquired from the publisher at BEA 2016*

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Last Night at the Circle Cinema: A Review

Last Night at the Circle Cinema by Emily FranklinOlivia, Bertucci and Codman have been a solid trio throughout high school. Best friends who never had much time for other people, the three are now facing the end of high school and the moment when their lives will diverge.

In a last attempt to keep their bonds strong, Bertucci plans one last escapade the night before graduation. The three will spend the night in the recently boarded up Circle Cinema.

The decrepit movie theater was site to many late night movies and bonding. It will also be their Olivia, Bertucci and Codman’s last chance to talk honestly with each other about what comes next. And everything that threatened to pull them apart over the last year in Last Night at the Circle Cinema (2015) by Emily Franklin.

**Last Night at the Circle Cinema is the kind of book that is impossible to talk about without spoilers so if you don’t like that sort of thing, avert your eyes.**

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Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between: A Review

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between by Jennifer E. SmithAfter two years together, Clare and Aidan only have one night left to figure out what comes next. With both of them leaving for college and heading to opposite coasts, Clare is certain that breaking up makes the most sense. Aidan isn’t so sure. They’ve already stayed together for two years–can a few extra miles really tear them apart?

As Clare and Aidan retrace the steps of their relationship across their small town they will revisit fond memories and reveal some closely guarded secrets. While saying goodbye to their homes, their friends and their families, Clare and Aidan will have to figure out if it’s time to say goodbye to each other as well in Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between (2015) by Jennifer E. Smith.

Jennifer E. Smith is a master when it comes to contemporary novels with a lot of heart and sweet romance. She is a phenomenal talent and I went into this book with high expectations after loving her recent novel The Geography of You and Me.

Which is why it’s so hard to say that this novel didn’t work for me. I think I’m atypical here and I think a lot of readers who dealt with (or will deal with) similar big changes to Aidan’s and Clare’s will totally identify with this novel.

I’m not one of those people. I put myself through college with scholarships, financial aid, and a part-time job. I commuted because my mom needed me at home, it was cheaper and because I didn’t want to go away. I’ve had a lot of people tell me that I missed out on a fundamental college experience. And I don’t know, maybe that’s true. But it was my choice and even then I knew it was the right choice for me.

No one in this entire book makes a similar choice. I suppose it’s because Clare and Aidan are from an affluent community but even the students who are going to college nearby are planning on leaving and moving into dorms. The one character who is truly staying behind and living at home is going to community college. Because he didn’t get accepted anywhere else. It was a little strange (and maybe even off-putting) to see that aspect of the college experience completely erased from this community.

I think that’s a big part of my disconnect with Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between. I never made the choices Clare and Aidan make and so for most of the book I had a really hard time understanding their choices. Although it made sense that the stakes are high for both characters, they never felt particularly pressing for me. Retracing the steps of a relationship that is now on the brink of collapse just felt depressing and often pointless.

The final decision for these characters seems obvious and inevitable from the beginning. Although Smith throws in a few twists and surprises, they come far too late in the story to make for any worthwhile changes.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between ends on an up note with a sweet note of optimism. Sadly, it also comes to late to make up for the rest of the novel. I’m not sure how it would have worked, but I wish the story readers got in this novel began where this book finished.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything in Between is an unlikely romance about leaving everything you know behind and striking out for the unknown. Although the romance is ultimately quite cute, a lot of the novel does read more like the postmortem of a relationship than the start or continuation of one. Recommended for anyone who had to move away for college or anyone who will. Readers looking to try Jennifer E. Smith for the first time might be better served with an earlier novel like, perhaps, my personal favorite The Geography of You and Me!

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, Take Me There by Susane Colasanti, Graffiti Moon by Cath Crowley,  Just One Day by Gayle Forman, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham, The Last Little Blue Envelope by Maureen Johnson, The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher at BEA 2015 for review consideration*

Never, Always, Sometimes: A Review

Never, Always, Sometimes by Adi AlsaidThe summer before freshman year, Dave and Julia made a promise: They would never fall into the trap of a cliche high school experience. No hair dyed a color found in the rainbow. No hooking up with a teacher. No crazy parties.

With senior year about to end, Dave realizes he’s broken rule eight: Never pine silently after someone for the entirety of high school. Meanwhile rule number ten–never date your best friend–seems impossible to break.

Dave has loved Julia from afar for years. When she suggests they complete all of the items on the list of Nevers, Dave readily agrees. But as Dave and Julia work their way down the list, they realize they have been a lot by skipping the high school cliches even as they begin to understand that some rules shouldn’t be broken in Never, Always, Sometimes (2015) by Adi Alsaid.

Never, Always, Sometimes is Alsaid’s second novel.

Never, Always, Sometimes is a sweet blend of nostalgia for the quintessential high school experience (something Dave and Julia soon realize they have unfairly scorned for the past four years), fun hijinks and an unexpected romance.

While the premise is brimming with potential, the execution in Never, Always, Sometimes is often disappointing. Dave and Julia are, perhaps intentionally, unbearably pretentious at the start of the novel. While both protagonists do learn over the course of the story, it often comes too little to late in terms of making them sympathetic characters.

The novel is broken into three parts and alternates tight third-person focus between Dave and Julia. Some reviewers have mentioned having issues with Julia’s voice. I’d posit instead that the bigger issue is that Dave and Julia’s “voices” are often indistinguishable despite Alsaid often sharing the character’s inner thoughts throughout the narrative.

Alsaid does excel at creating a realistically diverse cast of characters while also letting them be characters (instead of talking points or part of a diverse checklist for the novel). Julia has two dads, Dave’s mother died when he was a child and his family is hispanic. Their high school class is as varied and diverse as readers would expect from a large California high school.

Never, Always, Sometimes is sure to appeal to readers looking for a new story about characters getting ready to start college. Readers looking for wacky hijinks and shenanigans will appreciate the list aspect of this story as Dave and Julia check items off their Never list with varying results.

Possible Pairings: The Best Night of Your (Pathetic) Life by Tara Altebrando, Don’t Ever Change by M. Beth Bloom, Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan, So Much Closer by Susane Colasanti, Reunited by Hilary Weisman Graham, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Althea & Oliver by Cristina Moracho, Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales

*A copy this book was acquired from the publisher for review consideration at BEA 2015*

P. S. I Still Love You: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

*P. S. I Still Love You is the sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. As such there are major spoilers for To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before in this review.*

“You only know you can do something if you keep on doing it.”

psistillloveLara Jean didn’t know what to expect when all of her love letter’s were mailed. She knew she was upset and panicked. What she didn’t know was that the letter she wrote Peter K in eighth grade would lead to a fake relationship. She never would have guessed that it would lead to something more.

Lara Jean knows she loves Peter now. For real, not as part of their pretend dating. But she still doesn’t want to get her heart broken. She’s still afraid of getting hurt.

When another love letter makes its way back to her, Lara Jean is confronted with feelings from a crush she never quite forgot. Lara Jean might have feelings for two boys. But she can only be with one in P. S. I Still Love You (2015) by Jenny Han.

P. S. I Still Love You is the sequel to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and picks up shortly after the first book’s conclusion.

It’s hard to give this book a “real” review because there are a lot of spoilers–even with the summary because a lot of the driving plot mentioned above doesn’t come until after the first hundred pages.

P. S. I Still Love You was one of my most anticipated 2015 releases. While To All the Boys I Loved Before is a solid novel and functions perfectly as a standalone, I loved Lara Jean enough to want to read more. I also had a sneaking suspicion this book would have more John Ambrose McClaren* which I definitely needed in my life. (Not going to lie, he is my favorite character.)

This book does not disappoint. Although a lot of the plot focuses on Lara Jean’s romantic life, this story has a lot more going on. Lara Jean is still trying to be a good sister and live up to the standard set by Margot. She’s still taking care of Kitty and their father. She has to face cyber-bullying and changing friendships. Thanks to Peter (and her letters getting sent) Lara Jean has also come out of her shell and is trying new things.

It is particularly poignant to watch Lara Jean learn that the bonds that tie people together don’t always last forever and, more importantly, that sometimes that is the best thing for everyone. This story is imbued with a sense of nostalgia for the past as Lara Jean looks back on moments from her childhood but also immense optimism in terms of facing the unknown as she wonders what might come next.

Although Lara Jean doesn’t always make the decisions I would make in her position, she is such a well-written character that it doesn’t matter. Everything Lara Jean does and chooses makes perfect sense for her character in the moment so that the overall ending is deeply satisfying and absolutely perfect given the arc of both books.

P. S. I Still Love You is a must-read for fans of Jenny Han and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Also highly recommended for readers who enjoy slice-of-life novels with fun families, light (happy) romances, and especially for readers looking for a book that encapsulates nostalgia and optimism like no other.

*Follow me to my Exclusive Bonus Content if you want to talk more about John Ambrose McClaren (with some spoilers)!

Possible Pairings: Bookishly Ever After by Isabel Bandeira, A Week of Mondays by Jessica Brody, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, Nothing But the Truth (And a Few White Lies) by Justina Chen, Better Off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg, The Year My Sister Got Lucky by Aimee Friedman, I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Maurene Goo, Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu, The Key to the Golden Firebird by Maureen Johnson, Undercover by Beth Kephart, Shuffle, Repeat by Jen Klein, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, The Boyfriend List by E. Lockhart, When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon, Love and Other Foreign Words by Erin McCahan, Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Unwritten Rule by Elizabeth Scott, The Edge of Falling by Rebecca Serle

Exclusive Bonus Content: I loved John Ambrose McClaren just from the snippets we got about him in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Sometimes with a secondary character you can tell, by how they are written, that they are loved by the author and have a bigger story of their own. That was definitely the case with John and I was absolutely thrilled to find he played a bigger role in the novel.

While the romance aspect of P. S. I Still Love You didn’t go exactly how I had wanted (Team JAM in case I wasn’t clear) it still totally made sense for Lara Jean. I also feel pretty strongly that she and JAM will find their way back to each other, but I’m okay with having to imagine that part on my own–that’s the nice thing about open-ended conclusions to a favorite book.

So obviously I had strong feelings about these characters. Because of that, I made some buttons for any fans who want to declare their allegiance. You can see them all in my Buttons inspired by To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before & P. S. I Still Love You post. Also you can tell from my blog’s sidebar which teams I have chosen.