Suffer Love: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Suffer Love by Ashley Herring BlakeHadley St. Clair’s family fell apart last year when she came home to a door covered in papers that revealed, again and again, that her father cheated on her mother. Everyone is telling Hadley that it’s time to move on. Her best  friend doesn’t recognize the girl Hadley has become. Her father is constantly hurt by Hadley’s anger. Her mother says she is trying to save their marriage but she can barely stand to be around Hadley or her father.

Sam Bennett hopes he can start over when he moves to a new town with his mother and younger sister after his parents’ bitter divorce. Sam is tired of drama and wary of relationships. All he wants to do is survive senior year and move on to college where he can be far away from his parents and their tacit disapproval.

Hadley and Sam are both hurting. They’re both feeling abandoned and maybe even betrayed by their parents’ choices. Neither of them expects to find comfort or connection with the other–especially Sam who knows exactly how ludicrous their mutual attraction really is–but then they find exactly that. And maybe more in Suffer Love (2016) by Ashley Herring Blake.

The story alternates first-person narration between Hadley and Sam whose distinct personalities come across clearly. The hurt and anger both characters feel comes across strongly throughout the novel making parts of this story a bit brutal.

Hadley and Sam’s connection, hinted at as mysterious in the jacket copy, is revealed early on as Sam realizes he knows exactly who Hadley is and her connection to his family. While this element adds tension to the plot, the real crux of the story is how Hadley and Sam connect to each other and their families.

Both Hadley and Sam are authentic characters and realistically flawed. Neither of them have made the best decisions in the last year and they are both suffering the aftermath of their families being laid to waste with one marriage ending in divorce and the other barely holding it together.

Sam and Hadley are both nuanced and well-developed characters, often making their friends and parents seem one-dimensional in comparison. This character-driven novel interestingly works Shakespeare (whose plays Sam and Hadley are studying in class) into the plot which does add an extra something to the story.

Suffer Love is a visceral and emotive contemporary novel. Recommended for readers looking for a quick and romantic read.

Possible Pairings: The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, The Revolution of Birdie Randolph by Brandy Colbert, If I Fix You by Abigail Johnson, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, The Museum of Heartbreak by Meg Leder, Tweet Cute by Emma Lord, The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson, Foolish Hearts by Emma Mills, Damaged by Amy Reed, The Square Root of Summer by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Kissing in America by Margo Rabb, Girl Against the Universe by Paula Stokes, P. S. I Like You by Kasie West

All Fall Down: A Review

All Fall Down by Ally CarterIt has been three years since Grace has seen her ambassador grandfather or set foot in the country of Adria. Now, with nowhere else to go, Grace is once again home at the American Embassy in the city of Valancia.

Three years is a long time to be away, but distance has done nothing to dampen the painful memories of her mother’s death. In fact, returning to her mother’s childhood home only brings it all back in painful detail.

Returning to Valancia, Grace is more convinced than ever that her mother was murdered; even more convinced that she has to do everything she can to find the killer and make him pay.

Until then Grace has not one but two annoyingly present boys to deal with and a mess of secrets to untangle as she hunts for the truth.

Living on Embassy Row among the other international embassies is like living on a very thin ledge where one wrong move can push Grace over forever in All Fall Down (2014) by Ally Carter.

Find it on Bookshop.

All Fall Down is the first book in Carter’s Embassy Row series.

It’s hard sometimes to reconcile immeasurably high hopes for a book with the reality of reading said book. Ally Carter has already received wide (and well-deserved) acclaim for her Gallagher Girls and Heist Society novels as well as legions of loyal fans.

All Fall Down marks a dramatically different direction for Carter’s writing. Grace is still a witty and sharp narrator but she is also abrasive. Grace is also rash to the point of being reckless, something that can rarely be said for Carter’s other heroines. The pain and grief of her mother’s death is fresh and palpable throughout the novel. The sense of loss and regret is often so palpable that it is hard to read through.

In many ways, All Fall Down feels like the natural progression for Carter’s writing career as she continues to push her prose and her protagonists in new directions. The writing remains excellent and evocative as Grace delves into her new surroundings as well as a not-so-new mystery.

While the plot sounds sleek and polished, All Fall Down is much grittier with as many raw edges as Grace herself. Unfortunately, this darker tone also lessens the charm and humor readers familiar with Carter’s previous YA novels might expect to find here.

Unfortunately, with such a radically new premise (not to mention a country entirely of Carter’s own invention) almost all of All Fall Down is setup. Some parts of the initial plot are resolved but many are left dangling to be pursued in later installments. Instead of a start to a new series, this book feels more like a supplementary prequel as readers are left waiting for the actual story to start.

All Fall Down does once again highlight what Carter does so very well as she moves in an entirely new direction. A promising start to a new series for fans of thrillers and twisty suspense novels.

Possible Pairings: The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse Anderson, Dial M for Murder by Marni Bates, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, We Were Liars by E. Lockhart, I Am Princess X by Cherie Priest, Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan, 17 & Gone by Nova Ren Suma, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein, Wherever Nina Lies by Lynn Weingarten, The Space Between Trees by Katie Williams

All the Bright Places: A Review

All the Bright Places by Jennifer NivenTheodore Finch has been contemplating death and how he might end his own life for years. But whenever he starts to think really hard about killing himself something good, even a small good thing, makes him reconsider. It’s hard to stay present and Awake, but once he surfaces Finch is always willing to try.

Violet Markey is counting the days until graduation when she can leave her small Indiana town and the sharp pain of her sister’s sudden death behind.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s easy for everyone to believe that Violet saved Finch. But that isn’t the truth.

After, when they pair up for a school project to explore the wonders of their state, both Finch and Violet realize they might have found exactly who they need in each other. But while Violet begins to embrace life again, Finch finds himself struggling to stay Awake and in the moment in All the Bright Places (2015) by Jennifer Niven.

Find it on Bookshop.

All the Bright Places is Niven’s first novel written for young adults. It was also optioned for a movie before its official release date.

All the Bright Places is very similar to The Fault in Our Stars both thematically and stylistically. It is also poised to be a defining book of 2015 (and possibly also of whatever year the movie adaptation is released if it moves beyond developmental stages) with its appeal and buzz not to mention critical acclaim in the form of several starred reviews.

It is also worth noting that this book is beautifully packaged with a lot of great details ranging from the cover colors to the post it note motif and even a special message on the spine of the physical book.

Unfortunately, as is often the case with such an anticipated title, Niven’s generally strong writing only serves to underscore the numerous flaws within this incredibly frustrating novel.

Spoilers ahead as we delve into deeper discussion . . .

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The Impossible Knife of Memory: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

The Impossible Knife of Memory by Laurie Halse AndersonHayley and her father Andy have been on the road for the past five years. Sometimes riding in Andy’s rig. Sometimes laying low while Andy tries to hold down a job and Hayley does her version of homeschooling. But then everything stopped and Hayley has been moved back into a life she doesn’t want in a childhood home she refuses to remember.

Being home gives Hayley a chance at a normal life with friends and maybe even a boyfriend. Unfortunately the more the Hayley lets down her guard and allows herself to imagine a future, instead of living day-to-day, the more obvious it is that Andy is still haunted by memories of all the demons and friends he left behind after his last tour over seas. With monstrous memories looming for both of them, Hayley begins to wonder if having a normal life is something she and her father are even capable of in The Impossible Knife of Memory (2014) by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Hayley is an unreliable who lies both to the reader and herself as pieces of her past unfold in memories that cut like knives and unwanted visitors from her past. Slowly, with flashback-like memories from both Hayley and her father, the story of how they returned home unfolds. At the same time, Anderson manages to ground this book in the present with a fledgling romance and a grocery list of other problems that, in the hands of a less skilled writer, would feel trite as the perfect facades of Hayley’s friends also fall apart.

The Impossible Knife of Memory is an interesting book. But it’s also an incredibly difficult read at times. My mother was very sick last year and it took a toll on both of us–so much so that, as I read this book, I saw much more of myself in Hayley than I would have liked. That said, Anderson’s writing is excellent and returns here to the quality found in Speak with the same surprises and another fresh, surprising narrator. Although Andy is deeply troubled it was also nice to see a parental figure in a book with genuine affection for his daughter and interest in her well-being–even if it is mostly mired in the hardships that come with dealing with his own psychological traumas.

On the outset The Impossible Knife of Memory sounds like an issue book with its focus on Hayley’s father’s PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Anderson, however, brings her usual skill to this topic offering a well-rounded story that encompasses more than this one timely topic. I probably won’t re-read this book because of the personal slant that made it hard to read. I am actually painfully certain I don’t even want a copy in the house. That said, The Impossible Knife of Memory is an important book that is never heavy-handed or obnoxious. Instead Anderson offers an honest, unflinching portrayal of one family’s difficulties with PTSD as well as the promise of not just a way through but also even a chance at a happy ending.

Possible Pairings: I Remember You by Cathleen Davitt Bell, All Fall Down by Ally Carter, If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Midnight Dress by Karen Foxlee, Paper Towns by John Green, The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl by Barry Lyga, Damaged by Amy Reed, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Tiger Lily: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Let me tell you something straight off. This is a love  story, but not like any you’ve heard. The boy and the girl are far from innocent. Dear lives are lost. And good doesn’t win. In some places, there is something ultimately good about endings. In Neverland, that is not the case.”

Tiger Lily by Jodi Lynn AndersonNeverland is a beautiful, dangerous place. It’s an island where aging can be contagious, mermaids can drown you, and pirates terrorize the Lost Boys who are so savage they might eat you–boys who, according to rumors, might even fly. There are also the Cliff Dwellers and the Bog Dwellers. And somewhere between the two, the Sky Eaters, who remember every sunset they see and fear the wrath of their gods as much as the dreaded aging sickness.

For a place that is so small and hidden away, Neverland can be a very large place. Especially for a fairy. Fairies are mute, unable to speak but also empathic and tuned to everything around them. Before she was called Tinker Bell, she knew Tiger Lily and her history–part of the Sky Eaters but also half feral and hungry for more–as much an outsider in her tribe as one stubborn fairy.

Like everyone else, Tiger Lily (and Tink too) know to stay away from the Lost Boys and the fierce boy named Pan who leads them.

But when Tiger Lily saves one life it sets her on a path that will lead her directly to Peter Pan and threaten everything she holds dear as one small fairy tells the story of a love that might always have been doomed and her own small role in Tiger Lily (2012) by Jodi Lynn Anderson.

Find it on Bookshop.

If you haven’t guessed already, Tiger Lily is a retelling of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. This version, however, focuses on what happens before Wendy ever arrives in Neverland. It is also narrated by my favorite character, Tinker Bell.

While it seems strange, giving a mute character the chance to narrate a story, it works well in Tiger Lily. Able to observe many things and intuit emotions, Tinker Bell is almost an omniscient narrator who often fades away until something important must be told.

Tiger Lily builds Neverland into a place that is both marvelous and monstrous as Tiger Lily and Tink explore all of its dangers and beauties. Part-retelling, part love story,this novel is also a complex examination of how colonization and industrialization changed the world.

Anderson expertly separates Tiger Lily from its source material to make Tiger Lily a complicated, flawed character who finally has her own voice. Tinker Bell is equally well-realized as the novel focuses not just on Tiger Lily and Peter’s difficult romance but also Tink’s evolving relationship with the characters. Tiger Lily is an unconventional, satisfying story that starts with Peter Pan but becomes much more before its conclusion.

Possible Pairings: Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black, Unspoken by Sarah Rees Brennan, The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron, Vessel by Sarah Beth Durst, A Creature of Moonlight by Rebecca Hahn, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, For Darkness Shows the Stars by Diana Peterfreund, The Bride’s Farewell by Meg Rosoff, The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick, Never Never by Brianna Shrum, Everland by Wendy Spinale, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, All These Things I’ve Done by Gabrielle Zevin

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

Between Shades of Gray: A Review

Between Shades of Gray by Ruta SepetysOn June 14, 1941 Lina Viklas is taken by the Soviet secret police. Along with her mother and her younger brother, Jonas, Lina is forced to leave her home in the middle of the night to board a train to be deported from Lithuania with thousands like her.

As they are taken farther and farther from Lithuania, all hope seems lost. Lina’s father has been separated from the family to be sent to a prison camp. Lina’s dreams of one day attending art school or falling in love are dashed. With nothing but the clothes on their back and a few precious possessions, how can they survive? Will help ever come?

Refusing to lose her sense of self along with everything else, Lina clings to what she does have: her memories and her art. While dreaming of her past, Lina uses her talents to document the atrocities she and the other deportees are forced to endure. Lina may be far from everything she once knew, but she will survive. Any other options are too horrible in Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.

Find it on Bookshop.

Between Shades of Gray is Sepetys’ first novel. It was also a finalist in the 2011 Cybils for Young Adult Fiction which is how I came to read it. Since its publication Between Shades of Gray has garnered a fair amount of accolades and even critical acclaim in the form of a finalist spot for the 2012 William C. Morris YA Debut Award.

Sepetys,  herself a daughter of a Lithuanian refugee, brings light to one of history’s darker (not to mention lesser known) moments when the nations of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia disappeared from maps in 1941 as thousands were deported and sent to labor camps and prisons. These countries did not reappear until 1990.

Because of its content and its deft negotiation of this bleak subject matter, there is no doubt that Between Shades of Gray is an important, valuable book. It will undoubtedly be added to many history class curiculums and will raise awareness about Stalin’s cleansing of the Baltic region.

Unfortunately, being an important book does not make Between Shades of Gray a book without its flaws.

Both the story and its narrator, Lina, are difficult to connect with. The story has a linear narrative of Lina’s journey with the other deportees interspersed with flashbacks and memories of Lina’s old life in Lithuania. While the memories illustrate all that Lina has lost, they also appear abruptly and at little to the plot’s forward momentum. The ending is similarly abrupt not only having a a fifty-four year gap between the last chapter and the epilogue but also a gaping hole in terms of what happened to many of the characters.

Although Lina becomes a strong character as the story progresses, she spends much of the novel as a petulant girl who enjoys rash behavior and jumping to conclusions with little to no evidence to support any of her seemingly random assumptions.

So much emphasis is placed on Lina’s art but the book as a whole provides very little payoff in that department. Granted, Between Shades of Gray isn’t that type of book but I can’t help but wish that readers had been able to see Lina’s actual drawings after hearing so much about them.* If any book could have benefited from illustrations to add another dimension to the story, it’s this one.**

Between Shades of Gray is already a beloved book for a lot of readers. It will likely reach many more. The story and the characters are brimming with a potential that, in a lot of ways, was not fully realized. While Sepetys has created a story with many beautiful, compelling, important parts the sum of those parts never quite added up to a flawless read.

*Or at least to see a little more about what happened to some of the drawings Lina sent out into the world.

**Seriously, after you read the book, think about it for a second. How cool would that have been?!

Possible Pairings: The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece by Edward Dolnick, Alan and Naomi by Myron Levoy, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, Traitor by Amanda McCrina, Tamar by Mal Peet, Maus by Art Spiegelman, Hitler’s Canary by Sandy Toksvig, Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Living Dead Girl: A (sort of) Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth ScottOnce upon a time Alice was a little girl who disappeared. Once upon a time her name was not Alice. Once upon a time Alice was just like you. But that was a long time ago. Before Alice knew how lucky she was before she became a living dead girl in Elizabeth Scott‘s Living Dead Girl (2009).

Five years ago Alice was taken by a man named Ray. Five years ago Alice was not Alice. She was ten years old and could still be the little girl Ray wanted in his home. In his bed. But now Alice is fifteen. She knows Ray is ready to release her, the same way he released the first Alice, and she longs for that moment when everything will end. But first Alice has to find her replacement, something Alice readily agrees to if it means Ray will finally let her go.

Despite how cold and calculating as Alice has had to become, the search is not easy. Could it be that Alice isn’t willing to be Alice anymore?

This is a haunting, grim, miserable little story. At 170 pages it is a fast read which is good because if readers stop too long to think about what is really happening to Alice it becomes too devastating to bear. That said, the actual writing of the story is much less traumatic than I would have expected.

Living Dead Girl has received a lot of accolades as a great book for teen readers (reluctant or otherwise). I don’t really get it myself and find it a hard one to pitch simply because it’s such a depressing book. Alice has been so irreparably broken by the time we meet that it is nearly impossible to harbor any hopes for her; her situation is hopeless.

Nonetheless, Scott’s writing is compelling and Living Dead Girl offers a uniquely accurate insight into what it really means to be a victim too afraid to speak out.

Possible Pairings: Sleepless by Cyn Balog, Pretty Girl-13 by Liz Coley, The Night She Disappeared by April Henry, Cut Me Free by J. R. Johansson, Amelia Anne is Dead and Gone by Kat Rosenfield, A Long, Long Sleep by Anna Sheehan, This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers

Before I Die: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Before I Die by Jenny DownhamPre review disclaimer: This book was recommended to me by “Amy” with the caveat that she’d heard it was excruciatingly sad and she knew readers who actually cried when they were talking about it. My morbid curiosity peaked, I decided to give the book a go after making provisions (though not really enough) for after-sad-book-reading with some funny books. Even with that buffer, I found myself feeling deeply melancholy while reading almost the entire second half of the novel. I don’t really know what to say about this book because while it was good, it’s just not my style to recommend sad books to people. So, I guess just read the review and if your interest is also peaked, give it a go. Just keep my little warnings in mind. So, if I haven’t scared all of my readers off by now, onward to the review:

Before I Die (2007: David Fickling Books) is Jenny Downham‘s first novel (she trained as an actor and worked in alternative theater before writing according to her back flap bio). It is simultaneously life affirming and tragic.

Tessa Scott was diagnosed with cancer when she was twelve. Now sixteen, Tess is facing the unfathomable : her own death, much too soon and far too fast.

When the novel opens, Tess is in the midst of a self-imposed exile in her bedroom as she contemplates what dying really means when you haven’t had much time to live and when your family tries to keep you optimistic and your best friend insists on acting like she understands.

But she can’t. How can she possibly, when she has her whole life left? I hide under my hat again, just for a bit, because I’m going to miss breathing. And talking. And windows. I’m going to miss cake. And fish. I like fish. I like their little mouths going, open, shut, open.

And where I’m going, you can’t take anything with you.

Then an idea forms. Tess has a list, ten things to do before she dies. Given the choice between dying quietly and taking this one last chance to live, Tess decides to go for it–asking her best friend Zoey to help her do it all.

The list starts with sex. When things don’t go the way she had thought and she doesn’t feel the way she had hoped, Tess considers giving up on the list altogether until she receives a new diagnosis.

How long can I stave it off? I don’t know. All I know is that I have two choices–stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying, or get the list back together and get on with living.

So that’s exactly what Tess does. The items on the list range from the whimsical, like saying yes to everything for a day, to the poignant, like fame. The novel follows Tess as she completes the items on her list with varying levels of success and then through, literally, to the end.

Before I Die also spends a lot of time looking at Tessa’s relationships with her family and her friends. It’s interesting to see how her father and younger brother interact with Tess as well as how her absent mother tries to fit into the picture.

Tessa’s friend Zoey, however, probably gets more page time than the family. Dealing with her own problems in the story, Zoey offers an interesting foil to Tess’ situation. At the same time, their friendship provides the rather sobering reminder that, when someone is dying, it doesn’t mean everyone else’s lives can stop.

To borrow an old cliche, it’s the relationship between Tess and her neighbor Adam that really pulls at a reader’s heartstrings. As Tess and Adam try to connect, first as friends and then as something more, it’s kind of heartbreaking to realize they can’t always be together.

A lot of recently published novels are written in the present tense. That conceit is particularly appropriate in Before I Die since Tess can truly only live in the present. As I mentioned before, this novel doesn’t end happily. But that doesn’t make it less brilliant. Downham handles Tessa’s death, narrated like the rest of the book in Tessa’s voice, in a truly original way. I don’t know that this book would be something to give someone who is already depressed over a death, but it does offer an interesting perspective on loss from a radically new perspective.

Possible Pairings: If I Stay by Gayle Forman, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford