Book chat: ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ by Jenny Han

To All the Boys I've Loved BeforeIt’s been too long since I sank into some solid young adult fiction. And with my limited attention span these days? Well, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before really hit the spot.

The middle of three daughters, Lara Jean Song is used to hovering behind her successful older sister — often feeling a bit adrift behind Margot’s perfection. But with her sister heading off to college abroad (and breaking off her relationship with Josh, once Lara Jean’s own crush), this Song girl is ready to shine.

Maybe.

When a secret box of Lara Jean’s letters disappears, she is suddenly forced to confront her crushes — past and present — as her notes land in mailboxes around town. Lara Jean has always taken to letter-writing as a way to release her feelings for the boys she has loved: her first kiss, her summer camp love . . . even Josh, her sister’s ex-boyfriend.

As her crushes receive her notes and press her on her feelings, Lara Jean is forced to own up to her emotions — even as a faux-relationship with Peter, a popular boy on the rebound, begins to actually blossom. On the home front, Lara Jean is charged with caring for Kitty, her sassy younger sister, as well as her warmhearted but busy, bumbling father.

Though she’s initially mortified by the letters, are they actually the key to moving forward?

Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a sweet story with plenty of family dynamics, high school loves and entertaining escapades to delight its audience. Though it’s described as the tale of Lara Jean confronting her crushes, it’s also about family and self-acceptance.

Have you ever written a letter you never intended to send? As a teen, I frequently drafted notes to crushes and ex-boyfriends as a way to “get out” whatever angsty, complicated, 16-year-old drama I had stored up without fear of embarrassment or reproach. In fact, I had a floppy disk (a floppy disk! You too will get old someday, kids) full of such missives.

Had someone found my super-private collection of letters to the adorable guy in my math class or my first kiss or first love and actually sent them, I’m pretty sure you would have had to pry me out the dark cave I would have made my new home. But Lara Jean? She’s a pretty resilient, courageous cat. As a narrator, she’s entertaining and matter-of-fact — the sort of person who doesn’t realize she’s funny, which is the best kind.

Though I enjoyed Lara Jean’s burgeoning friendship/relationship with Peter, the charming boy-about-town, the real highlight here was the Song sisters’ dynamic. Especially tight-knit since their mother’s death, I found their closeness heartwarming and realistic. I loved that Lara Jean appreciated Margot even more after she was off in Scotland, and young Kitty is a wise-beyond-her-years and fun character pivotal to the story.

A breezy and enjoyable novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before demands little of readers except their rapt attention . . . which you’ll happily hand over. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need!

4 out of 5

Pub: 2015 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


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Book chat: ‘Love, Lucy’ by April Lindner

Love, LucyThe summer before her freshman year of college, Lucy Sommersworth embarks on a European adventure for a taste of freedom before sacrificing her dreams of acting to focus on business in school. Accompanied by Charlene, a new friend and fellow college student, the pair purchase rail passes to crisscross the continent and meet many characters along the way.

Landing in Florence, Lucy and Charlene check in at a hostel in the heart of the city with the goal of exploring the famous Italian locale — and it’s not long before they meet Jesse Pallatino, a New Jersey native currently bumming his way around Italy busking for cash.

What follows is a whirlwind romance that sizzles in the Florence sun . . . but threatens to implode when Lucy returns to Philadelphia, where she begins her practical education but struggles to forget the amazing summer they shared. As the pair try to determine if and how they fit into each other’s lives, Lucy undergoes a metamorphosis all her own.

April Lindner’s Love, Lucy is a sweet — if predictable — young adult novel perfect for armchair travelers. With its warm Italian breezes, vivid scenery and romantic settings, Lucy’s time in Europe reads like something out of a dream . . . especially when a guitar-playing free spirit comes on the scene.


David

Florence

Florence cafe

Scenes from Florence, 2007


Though I’ll admit to liking the first half of the book — set abroad — more than the second, Lucy is a likeable heroine struggling to appease her difficult father while still being true to herself. In love with theatre, she feels alive on stage . . . but her dad, who happens to be footing the bill for her college education, has little interest in the arts.

After their chance meeting and mutual attraction, it’s Jesse that gets Lucy thinking about how life could be should she leave the safe path her parents have laid for her to chase her dreams. I found the conflict realistic and, for many, familiar: choose the comfortable route, or dare to be bold?

Though Lucy and Jesse never felt totally formed as characters, I didn’t mind the lightness with which I read Love, Lucy. It was sweet, uncomplicated and relatable, especially as Lucy struggles to choose between a new love interest and the wild Jesse. Intimacy definitely plays a role in the storyline, so bear that in mind for younger readers.

If you’d like to take a walk through Italy without leaving the comfort of your porch, Lindner’s fun story may be your ticket. The scenes in Florence and Rome took me back to my own trip there in 2007, and I loved reliving that experience through Lucy’s eyes.

3.5 out of 5

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy kindly passed along by Estelle. Thank you!


Book chat: ‘Isla and the Happily Ever After’ by Stephanie Perkins

Isla and HappilyHere’s what I love about Stephanie Perkins: her stories are romantic and realistic, adorable and heartbreaking. There is just the right amount of salt to balance the sweet — and though her characters do get a “happily ever after” (imagine that!), the road isn’t paved solely in diamonds. You have to stumble on a few ruts, too.

Isla and the Happily Ever After — the third in a trilogy of stories featuring independent but related characters — did not disappoint. Like Anna and Lola before her, Isla is a winning combination of strong and vulnerable. The middle of three sisters, our heroine struggles to find her place at her French boarding school — and, you know, the world at large — when Josh, a classmate on whom she’s nursed a serious crush for years, suddenly seems to notice her.

Really notice her.

Josh is a politician’s son — polished when necessary, dorky and artistic and brooding when the cameras are off. He devotes himself to art, working tirelessly on a graphic memoir panel by panel. Though they go to school together in Paris, Isla and Josh cross paths — and finally talk — during a serendipitous meeting on a rainy night in New York. When they reconnect again in France, everything changes.

I loved the sweet, heart-pounding development of their relationship: the little glances, the small smiles. Nerves, anticipation, bliss. It’s impossible to read Perkins’ latest and not remember the first time you fell in love — every element is there, right down to the sickening feeling that accompanies knowing you won’t see him or her for hours after you part. Days, even. The exquisite torture!

Though we know Isla and Josh are destined for each other (I mean, it’s right there in the title), their course is not smooth and untroubled. Isla’s loyalty to her best friend, Kurt, added nice contrast to the familiar “can girls and boys just be buddies?” trope. Their dynamic was unconventional — but I dug that. Beyond the romance at the heart of the story, Isla’s life is made colorful by the relationships she has with friends and family . . . and I felt her struggle to maintain a tight friendship with Kurt while falling in love, something to which many will relate.

While I struggled a bit to get into the story and felt the build-up dragged at points, I never considered giving up — and once I hit the last 100-ish pages, I flew like a jet to finish. In contrast to what she once believes, Isla is a dimensional character who feels like a friend . . . and Perkins’ tale of young love, hope and taking chances definitely resonated with me.

How did it stack up to Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door? Well, Anna remains my favorite heroine with the most pulse-racing story — but Isla would be a close second. Perkins’ leading ladies are vibrant, colorful and memorable . . . and I certainly won’t forget them. Longtime fans of the series will delight in cameos and a fulfilling ending to other characters’ arcs, too.

4 out of 5

Pub: August 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library


Book chat: ‘The Fault In Our Stars’ by John Green

The Fault In Our StarsSo I finished John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars on Sunday. I bought it last week in anticipation of a long weekend away as a “treat” to myself, insofar as a book about kids with cancer can be a “treat.”

Also, despite loving my Kindle for years now, I still feel weird paying for e-books? I mostly read review copies or freebies or library loans. I guess that’s a terrible thing to admit . . . I mean, it’s just that they’re digital. Yes, I do pay for plenty of things I cannot physically hold, but I guess I’m just crotchety and still struggling to grasp the concept of paying real money for things that feel un-real.

Anyway. Clearly a post for another day.

The Fault In Our Stars has been on my radar for years due to its reputation as a tearjerker, I suppose. Sometimes I crave a good cry and don’t mind a depressing novel; they can be quite beautiful, after all. Plus, this is penned by Green, Great Lord of the Book/Young Adult World, and I’ve read and enjoyed several of his books. He’s darn witty and insightful.

Also, I saw him speak at the National Book Festival in 2012 . . . and yeah, he’s totally cute. Just feel that, in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that.

Anyway. (Man, I’m a mess today.) Back to the actual book, friends. I have lots of thoughts about it, but . . . they’re scattered, disjointed. I went into this novel knowing it had been hyped into oblivion but is also loved fiercely by many readers — I mean, it’s been rated more than 1 million times on Goodreads.

One. Million. Times.

It’s hard to pick up a book you’ve heard so much about without rampant expectations. Like, for example, I expected to cry — a lot. I mean, the basic plot? Two teenage cancer survivors meet at a support group and fall in love. You know something ain’t going to end well, right? Even the title suggests it.

To my shock, I’ve managed to avoid spoilers all this time — no small feat given its 2012 publication date. And the accompanying movie released in June, which I’m now exceptionally eager to see.

So I won’t ruin it for you, either. Trust me.

But back to my Feelings. I loved Augustus because yeah, I think we’re supposed to. Almost engineered to. He’s cool, thoughtful, romantic, sweet . . . all attributes I typically love in a dude. Gus is also wise beyond his years — something that comes with having stared down death, I suppose — and utterly devoted to Hazel, our narrator, who is herself living with a cancer that actively decimates her lungs. Hazel requires constant oxygen delivered via a tank, her breathing shadow, and Gus accepts this.

Gus accepts her. And not just because her chopped-off locks and quiet confidence remind him of actress Natalie Portman.

Green’s tome is a story of life and death. Of life after death, and living well in the face of impending death. Though we all know we’re mortal beings, some of us must confront that fact much earlier than others. It’s awful, but it’s the truth. The subject matter is understandably heavy, and even in its buoyant moments — those sparkly moments of first love, as light as the champagne the two share — it’s there. The gravity weighing them down, the illness with its claws sunk deep into them both.

And yet, they love. They are. They will be.

The portrayal of Hazel’s parents, who are themselves fighting the good fight along with their daughter, also felt realistic and heartbreaking. Ditto the experiences of Augustus’ parents and the extended Waters clan. Even the peripheral characters — Isaac, a fellow cancer survivor who loses his sight; Hazel’s best friend, Kaitlyn, a fashionable and free teen who serves as her tenuous and final remaining link to the “healthy” and unbound world — serve a purpose and occasionally provide comedic relief.

There is so much in The Fault In Our Stars that felt both beautifully clear and unbelievably obtuse. I fluctuated between getting lost in Green’s deep thoughts and feeling completely discomfited by them. Our young lovers are both enamored with a fictional book called An Imperial Affliction, and learning the fate of its various characters via its alcoholic author in Amsterdam becomes an obsession for them.

I got it, but I didn’t always get it.

Still. Did I like The Fault In Our Stars? Absolutely. I’ve thought of little else since finishing. It was sad, yes — but also many things in between. I cried a little, but not as I expected to — and the finale wasn’t what I’d anticipated, either . . . in a good way? I think. It splintered me, but I’m still standing.

Though Augustus is obsessed with leaving a lasting mark on the world, The Fault In Our Stars is a powerful reminder that though our time here is limited, the impact we make on others — even if it’s merely one other — is more important. Lasting.

Love can only ever lead to suffering, to separation . . . but it’s worth it.

It has to be.


4 out of 5

Pub: 2012 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Open Road Summer’ by Emery Lord

Open Road Summer 2Though the humid days and sticky nights will soon fade into autumn, there’s still time to enjoy a summer treat — and Emery Lord’s Open Road Summer may well be it.

Life on the road with music superstar Delilah “Dee” Montgomery is always an adventure — especially for Reagan O’Neill, Dee’s childhood best friend. Happy to shimmy away from a troubled year back home in Nashville, Reagan throws herself into keeping Dee happy and energized while trying to block out memories of the last few months.

After a scandal threatens to sully Dee’s deserved “good-girl” image, a scheme to pair her with Matt Finch — a musician who earned fame with his brothers, but is decidedly all grown up — hopes to put a spin on the situation. As Reagan gets to know Matt away from the harsh glare of the spotlight, she realizes there may be more to him — and life — than she’d anticipated.

What I really loved about Open Road Summer was its honest take on first love and friendship. Having a best friend requires nurturing and care just like any other relationship — something Reagan and Dee acknowledge and understand. Though they’re ridiculously tight and always looking out for each other, they fight and fret and have their disagreements, too. They’re like sisters — and as with any dynamic, there are ups and downs.

Still, the bond the teens share is admirable . . . especially as the enter and leave one another’s orbits. As Dee’s honest lyrics and sweet persona catapult her far from their high school, she could have left Reagan behind — but she doesn’t. Though the “scandal” concerning Dee is extremely mild, especially by modern standards, I bought the idea that pairing her with “wholesome” singer Matt Finch would be a positive for them both.

Especially because Matt was pretty swoon-worthy.

I couldn’t read Open Road Summer without picturing Taylor Swift as Dee and Nick Jonas as Matt, which worked for me. Their stories paralleled their famous counterparts enough to create the comparison, but they certainly weren’t copycats. Matt, in particular, is shouldering his own pain alongside Reagan — but being a tough girl and all, she doesn’t want him to know it.

As a narrator, Reagan was the right combination of jaded but hopeful. She puts on a good front, you know, with her rough-and-tumble boyfriends and high heels — but we know she’s secretly striving for connection, just like all of us. Her evolution from damaged to trying was believable and commendable, and I definitely bonded with her and wanted her to succeed.

This is a quick, enjoyable read about hanging on and letting go — and I loved its accurate portrayal of friendship and love. While the ending was hopeful, it wasn’t sappy . . . which I really appreciated given, you know, we are talking about teenagers here. Not to be a cranky Old Married, but honestly — stories about 17-year-olds pledging their undying love sort of provoke epic eye-rolling in me.

But there were no rolled eyes here. Only big grins.

Fans of contemporary young adult novels, tales of first love and stories centered around the rich and famous (but nice!) will find lots to enjoy in Emery Lord’s Open Road Summer. It’s the perfect companion for a late-summer weekend . . . virgin daiquiri not included.

4 out of 5

Pub: April 15, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Copy provided by publisher via the lovely ladies of Rather Be Reading

Book review: ‘The Here and Now’ by Ann Brashares

The Here and NowSeventeen-year-old Prenna James knows the rules. In exchange for her freedom, she and her fellow travelers must not let anyone know where — or, more specifically, when — they come from. That a group of “immigrants” has found a way to open a portal in time to journey back to an illness-free Earth is a wonder . . . one that cannot be discovered.

The air is clean. Mosquitoes are nothing more than a nuisance. Prenna doesn’t take any of her freedoms from Earth’s ravages for granted — not after barely surviving a plague that claimed countless lives almost a century in the future. Though her arrival isn’t without suspicion, she manages to dodge the questions of other teens . . . and even those of Ethan Jarves, a handsome classmate linked to Prenna from the beginning.

When a chain of events cause Prenna to question everything she’s been told about how and why the travelers are there, she must decide for herself how to move forward. And is love, regardless of the cost, really worth it?

Ann Brashares’ The Here and Now the latest in a batch of young adult fiction with a dystopian angle . . . and, you know, it was pretty interesting. It’s no Life As We Knew It, but it’s certainly not terrible. Something about the story has me leaning toward ambivalence, though; I can’t pinpoint anything wrong with it, but it didn’t hold my attention the way I would have liked.

Prenna’s wit, intelligence and cunning carried the story for me, though. As it becomes apparent the elders aren’t exactly disclosing the truth to their “family” of sorts, I wanted Prenna to break away and do something bold — especially when we discovered something could be done. The suspense of finding out the significance of a date and the true identity of a friend kept the pace moving forward, and the story’s pivotal scenes were pretty compelling.

The Here and Now takes place in modern-day America — more than half a century before a mosquito-born illness wipes out huge swaths of the population. On the whole, the world-building was . . . sufficient? Okay? I would have loved more details about future America, actually, but I suppose that wasn’t the real point. The plan was to prevent the awful future, even if that wasn’t initially the goal. So to hear tons about a ravaged world would probably have been pointless.

Still.

Billed partially as a romance, the evolution of Ethan and Prenna’s relationship felt pretty realistic. I saw Prenna as the cute kick-butt type — and Ethan, for all his quirkiness, definitely had the hunk factor going on. I loved that he was sharp and clever and always willing to help, and learning his fate really added to his impact for me. Their first-love fumblings felt true-to-life and sweet, and I loved how supportive they were of one another without falling into unabashed “But I can’t live without you!” cheesiness. I don’t do cornball. (Well, most of the time.)

Fans of young adult fiction with a healthy dash of dystopian disaster will find an interesting — if not entirely unique — tale in The Here and Now, which was a quick and easy read. Brashares has earned her spot with YA fans through the beloved Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, and her latest is worth a read. It didn’t rock my world . . . but was certainly an entertaining escape.


3.5 out of 5!

Pub: April 8, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Facebook
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘What I Was’ by Meg Rosoff

What I WasWhat an intriguing little book.

I knew from experience that Meg Rosoff doesn’t pen your “average” young adult fiction; indeed, How I Live Now was one of the more offbeat, compelling and disturbing YA books I’ve ever read. I finished it almost four years (!) ago, yet I can recall certain passages and turns of phrase all these books later.

In the vein of the colorful, unusual and incredibly well-written is this slim novel: What I Was. The tale of H, our relatively unnamed narrator, and his long-ago friendship with Finn, Rosoff’s story is an exploration of friendship. A confusing, focused, odd and all-encompassing friendship, perhaps, but still just a friendship at its core.

It’s hard to do this book justice — or discuss it without spoilers. So much happens, but there is little discernible “plot” in the traditional sense. H is a rapscallion (how often can one use that word?!) used to getting kicked out of prestigious boarding schools, and he expects he’ll face a similar departure from this one. Everything is a little boring, a little beneath him; he’s not interested in studying or readying himself for the future, or whatever it is young men of wealth and privilege should be doing. He simply doesn’t care.

And then, on a run with his classmates, he meets Finn. Moody, quiet and living a life of extreme independence in a small but well-cared-for hut on the water, Finn’s life is everything H wishes for himself — especially free from the prying eyes of professors and classmates. Though H doesn’t recognize his growing concern for Finn as what it truly is (until it’s too late, perhaps), we know that H has fallen in love.

It gets more complicated from there.

But not in the ways you’d expect.

Oh, the exquisite pain of wanting to discuss what happens in this book without spoiling it all for you. I will note that I had an awful spoiler-ish encounter with a review posted elsewhere, so I’m not going to do that to you. Even knowing what I knew going in (not everything, just some of it), I was still shocked by what transpired. In an impressive way. Rosoff is a master of revealing secrets slowly, then all at once . . . and you’re left gobsmacked that you could have missed something so obvious.

She’s just that good.

Though H is not a thoroughly admirable person, he’s a teenage boy. A teen boy with issues and problems and secrets weighing heavily on his shoulders, even if his natural defense is to laugh them off or lash out. I appreciated him as a narrator, enjoying his sarcasm and natural wit — and even when the chaos became too much to handle, I felt that this older-H telling us the story of this fateful year was an anchor. I held on to him.

The setting of What I Was — a crumbling British coastline — just added to the allure for me. Rosoff’s writing is rich in imagery, very atmospheric; we sense the damp and cold of Finn’s hut just as H does, and therefore appreciate the fledgling fire that much more.

Though this won’t go down in my personal literary history as a favorite, Rosoff’s story is fascinating and unique — something I’ve thought about often in the weeks since finishing.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2008 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg