Book review: ‘North Of Beautiful’ by Justina Chen Headley

north_of_beautifulIt would be easy to call Justina Chen Headley’s North Of Beautiful a gorgeously written, moving young adult novel — and trust me, it absolutely is. But it’s also so much more than that.

Sixteen-year-old Terra Cooper is an artist, student, daughter, girlfriend — and a young woman with a port-wine stain splashed across her cheek. Her life has been defined by her birthmark, which she takes great pains to cover with makeup every morning. That “secret,” most tender part of herself is exposed only around her mother Lois and Grant, her father. After some controversy, Grant Cooper’s lifelong obsession with maps has given way to a new subject of malevolence: his wife. Terra and her mother live in constant fear of Grant’s mercurial moods and quiet, seething disdain, while Terra’s two older brothers have flown as far away from their disjointed family as they can. Terra protects herself emotionally with art and physically with Erik; Lois buries herself in the comfort of food.

But everything changes when she meets Jacob, a Goth teen accustomed to standing out. While Terra attempts to cover her birthmark, Jacob attempts to embrace what he could never hide: his heritage. As the Chinese-American son of Norah, his blonde, white mother and older brother to a white-blond child, Jacob couldn’t bury himself away if he tried. So he jumps to the other end of the spectrum — smile yourself and put others ill at ease. Jacob’s father’s impending remarriage to a woman closer to Jacob’s age has put a splinter into Norah’s carefully-concocted existence. A chance meeting between Terra, Lois, Norah and Jacob points them all in a totally new direction.

It’s hard to describe exactly what made this book feel like magic dust slipping through my fingers — the strong characterization? Potent emotion? Excellent storytelling? Gut-wrenching dialogue? The gentle, sweeping but very effective romance? Lush scenery? I’m not sure, but as the story begins to take flight and Lois and Terra embark on an adventure neither could ever imagine taking, I could literally feel my heart expanding. Chen made me feel as though I were walking right alongside them, cheering them on as they pulled further and further away from Grant’s tentacles.

Because as much as this is Terra’s tale, it’s a story about Lois, too. And Grant. And Norah. And Jacob. And Erik. No one in Chen’s novel is extraneous; no bit of expression is random. Though the prose flows beautifully, every line bears the weightiness of importance — we know what we’re being told is something we should know.

And never before have I read a novel — and a long novel! — that carried a metaphor so seamlessly through every paragraph. Mapmaking, a compass, a cartouche, geocaching, collages, the very map itself — Chen is a master. When I realized the importance maps would play in the story, instinctively I waited for it all to get redundant . . . but it never did. Maps are the story’s anchor, the not-so-subtle — but fantastic — way of guiding us through the novel. And in the end, Terra’s face itself is a map, too.

Another thing I loved and can’t pass up mentioning? How beautifully Chen describes the transformative powers of travel. Though you can return home from a journey and settle in the same bed in the same house in the same town, you are not the same person. You’ve been forever changed in ways both perceptible and invisible. Experiencing a new world through Lois and Terra’s eyes and watching their return to Colville totally buoyed me up.

I could keep talking about this book for another ten posts, but I’m sure you have lunch to eat, work to do and family to enjoy. So I’ll leave you with this: read North Of Beautiful. I cried and desperately didn’t want it to end — and found myself wondering what the characters were up to days after I finished the book. That’s my kind of story!

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0316025054 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy borrowed from my local library

Book review: ‘My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters’ by Sydney Salter

my_big_noseJory Michaels has a problem.

A big, lumpy, ridiculous and embarrassing one — and it’s right on the edge of her face, there to greet each and every boy in Reno, Nevada who just may have paid an ounce of attention to her . . . if Super Schnozz wasn’t constantly there to ruin her chances at popularity and happiness.

And ruin it all, it does — Jory just can’t seem to muster up enough self-confidence to keep up with gorgeous and well-proportioned best friends Megan and Hannah as the summer before their senior year at Reno High stretches before them, long and inviting. Jory decides that this summer will be one of “passion” as she finds work delivering local cakes and flowers and begins saving for a nose job. As she works to set aside the $5,000 or so she’ll need, Jory fights to get of the shadows of her younger brother Finn, an Adonis-like soccer player and fiddler of girls’ hearts. She’s stuck, too, with her mother’s whacky dieting and constant commenting on Jory’s looks — especially how she doesn’t seem to resemble anyone else in their tanned, golden family. And then there’s the little issue of trying to grab the attention of Tyler Briggs, her longtime crush who encourages her affections just enough to keep her from giving up on him completely.

And so Sydney Salter’s My Big Nose And Other Natural Disasters goes: Jory laments Super Schnozz; Jory obsesses about not being as good-looking as her friends; Jory worries she’ll die alone, the “world’s oldest virgin” living in a hotel room and drinking herself to death. Jory crashes vans, trips over her own feet, breaks things and constantly drops things, usually in front of Gideon, the bewildering (and big-nosed) son of a cake shop client.

I felt like I’d fallen head-first into 350-ish pages of a teenage girl’s obsessively insecure ramblings . . . oh, wait — I did.

Now before you get the wrong idea about me, I’ll say this — I did like the book. Jory was a believable — if not entirely likeable — heroine, and I think many teen girls would appreciate and relate to her body image issues. And like our narrator, I’ve also felt I have my own Super Schnozz perched on the edge of my face — and I’ve been very self-conscious about it! That’s really what attracted me to the book: I’m always interested in the plights of girls with big noses (I’ve been told we have far more personality than others. Between that and my mess of curly hair, I choose to believe that).

The real “moral” of the story here became blatantly obvious as Jory eventually bonded with her mother enough to have a frank discussion of why Jory came to find herself in the office of a plastic surgeon: her own mother’s ridiculous dieting and constant discussion of her own looks made Jory grow up feeling insecure and judged. Though her mom swore she was only commenting on herself and not her daughter’s appearance, she was leading by example — and the example Jory observed was that beauty was the only gateway to happiness. And that belief, of course, made her ridiculously unhappy.

I really felt for Jory’s mom — I honestly don’t think she meant to do such a number on her kid’s confidence. But she did. And that was sad.

While Salter is definitely a good writer who had no trouble getting in the mind of teens, my fundamental issue with the book was this: it was whiny. Oh, so very, very whiny. While we had the neat framework of the summer laid out as the timeline of the novel, I felt like Jory in her work van: driving aimlessly for hours on end, no particular path in mind. I just didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Even as her friends pulled more and more ridiculous stunts to gain the attention of boys and Jory found herself in all sorts of awkward situations, they just weren’t as funny as I thought they would be. Most of them made feel . . . sad. And empty for her as she wound up snuggling up to boys who couldn’t have cared less about her, or worrying about the same set of issues that played like a record in her head.

Yes, Jory seemed real — but that’s what also made her really frustrating. I had a hard time catching any snippet of her personality beyond what she claimed to like in order to fit in and be accepted. This was all part of the “coming-of-age” story, yes — Jory’s lack of an individual identity, the fact that she invested too much of herself in others . . . but I just really wanted something more.

3 out of 5!

ISBN: 0152066438 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Book review: ‘Evermore’ by Alyson Noel

evermore Some would call Ever Bloom lucky — at sixteen, she’s the sole survivor of a horrific car accident that claimed the lives of her parents, sister and dog. But Ever knows the truth . . . the accident was her fault; she only survived because she made a stupid decision and refused to cross over; and she deserves to feel guilty, guilty, guilty.

And she does, continuously, even after her deceased sister Riley materializes to keep her company. The terrible feelings abate a bit with the unexpected arrival of Damen Auguste, a smoldering new addition to high school who immediately sets out to befriend Ever and her pals Miles and Haven. Damen calms the onslaught of stimuli that constantly assails Ever, rendering her nauseous and exhausted from having to “read” everyone all the time. With him at her side, she feels strangely calm.

Of course, nothing in Alyson Noel’s Evermore is at it seems — especially Damen. While he broods and generally exudes charisma, Ever laps it all up and accepts his countless gifts of bright red tulips . . . all while not quite figuring out why he’s able to comfort her so much. And after her best friend Haven is mysteriously drawn to bad girl Drina, Ever knows she has to get to the bottom of the confusion, filling in the blanks in her memory, if she’ll have any hope of figuring out what’s happening to her.

Okay. Honestly, there was so much I disliked about this story, I’ll start out by talking about what I did enjoy — Ever’s relationship with Riley, the forever 12-year-old, who comes to visit her big sister and shares interesting tidbits about all you can see when you don’t have to worry about walls, distance or exhaustion. I loved Riley’s spunky spirit and the stubborn way she continued to badger her big sister — even if she wasn’t able to do it in the flesh.

But everything else? I just didn’t buy it — especially the simple explanations for so many things that just seem to come up, smack you in the head and shout, “Hi, I’m Captain Obvious!” As far as Ever and Damen’s romantic, consuming relationship? I need to feel a spark, some chemistry, and I didn’t get a sense of anything at all other than hey, Damen is really smokin’ hot, and everyone’s in love with him — including Ever, when she admits it to herself. And to me, Ever isn’t particularly likeable or attractive, making me further question why someone like Damen would be intrigued by her (I share some similarities with the villain here!). We eventually do discover the truth there — when Captain Obvious swoops in wearing his bright red cape.

And it’s impossible to talk about Evermore without bringing up Twilight . . . because the similarities are so glaring. If I hadn’t read Meyer’s Twilight series first, would I have enjoyed this book? Probably not, no. But because I did fall for Edward and Bella and have their storylines running through my head whenever I read a young adult paranormal romance, I just absolutely felt nothing about Ever and Damen.

I wanted another dimension to this book — something without all the tidiness of a “bad girl villain” who manipulates others, and something beyond the strange plotline that comes about three-fourths of the way through the novel. I was waiting for something to happen, wanting to experience Ever’s grief at the loss of her family with her if that’s what I needed to do. But I couldn’t appreciate anything she was going through because I just wasn’t emotionally invested. Nothing really propelled me forward while reading this one . . . except the strong, serious desire to be finished.

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 031253275X ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

Book review: ‘Along For The Ride’ by Sarah Dessen

along_for_the_rideThe summer before she starts college, overachiever Auden West makes the unexpected decision to spend her vacation with her father, stepmother Heidi and newborn baby sister Thisbe in their beachside town of Colby. Since her parents’ divorce two years ago, Auden has thrown herself completely into education and ignored any pull at having a social life. Without friends and tired of trying to get the attention of her intense mother, a well-respected college professor, Auden decides to get on “beach time.”

But any hope she’d had of spending time with her father — a once-successful novelist — are thwarted as Robert West holes himself up in his office daily, trying to grind out chapters of a new book which will catapult him back into literary stardom. And there’s another problem bringing down the walls of the West beach home: baby Thisbe just can’t stop screaming. Ever. Overworked, exhausted and at her wit’s end, Heidi comes to rely upon Auden for assistance in navigating the troubled waters of new motherhood and a tense relationship with Auden’s dad. She can only do so much, though — and when she meets Eli, a fellow insomniac who also wanders the town’s sleepy streets late at night, Auden begins to see just how much she have missed while spending her life trying (in vain) to gain her parents’ approval and attention.

What I loved about Along For The Ride — and all of Dessen’s works — is her uncanny ability to blend family stories with romance, friendship and, in many cases, a larger “social issue.” In this novel we’re talking about the children of divorce — and I think she explores that well without it ever becoming treacly. For me, Dessen’s works feature characters about as authentic as they come. I loved watching Auden change, trying more and more of what she never thought she could do, or would be interested in — and watching her friendships develop with Maggie, Leah and Esther. Life with Eli seemed very real, too, and though I knew ultimately what would probably work out between them, I was still excited to get there. The novel didn’t focus exclusively on family dynamics — nor did it talk about the love interest nonstop. Everything was in balance, producing a fun, thoughtful read.

While I have to admit that Along For The Ride lacked the emotional resonance of some of Dessen’s other works — like Just Listen, my personal favorite — I read it very quickly and really felt for many of the characters, especially Heidi. And the ending was perfect! Definitely recommend her work to anyone looking for a great read with very memorable characters.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0670011940 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Along For The Ride — just six days to go!

along_for_the_rideWhat am I waiting quite impatiently for this Wednesday? Sarah Dessen’s newest release, Along For the Ride, which publishes Tuesday, June 16! I’m a longtime fan of Dessen, a young adult writer from North Carolina who captivates with each and every character she creates. I know I’m certainly not alone!

I’m so devoted to Dessen, I can tell you quite honestly that I haven’t even read the synopsis of the book. Regardless of whether it’s about aliens taking over lakes across the country, a team of well-mannered explorers studying exotic plant life or a young woman grappling with the pangs of first love, loss and delicate family relationships (I’m banking it’s somewhere close to the latter), I’ll be rushing out to grab it!

But just for kicks, here’s how Amazon is piquing our interest:

It’s been so long since Auden slept at night. Ever since her parents’ divorce — or since the fighting started. Now she has the chance to spend a carefree summer with her dad and his new family in the charming beach town where they live. A job in a clothes boutique introduces Auden to the world of girls: their talk, their friendship, their crushes. She missed out on all that, too busy being the perfect daughter to her demanding mother.

Then she meets Eli, an intriguing loner and a fellow insomniac who becomes her guide to the nocturnal world of the town. Together they embark on parallel quests: for Auden, to experience the carefree teenage life she’s been denied; for Eli, to come to terms with the guilt he feels for the death of a friend.

In her signature pitch-perfect style, Sarah Dessen explores the hearts of two lonely people learning to connect.

Okay! Well, now I can say that I’ve actually read the synopsis. Sounds awesome, right? I’m quite excited and feel like this rampant enthusiasm will result in me live Tweeting about it as soon as I rip open that cover. And since I leave for the beach next Wednesday, I’ll get it just in time to tout around all vacation!

New to Sarah Dessen? I highly recommend everything she’s ever written, but I have to go on record as saying my favorite novels are Just Listen and The Truth About Forever. Sarah is the master of creating textured, believable characters who think, speak and behave in ways you would expect from disjointed but lovable teens. I’m immediately drawn into her stories of friendship and family dynamics, and there’s always an awesome, tangible love story in there. Dessen is a young adult author, but don’t let that deter you if you’re not usually into YA — her stories will appeal to readers of any age!

What’s everyone else waiting for this Wednesday? Check out more responses over at Breaking the Spine!

Book review: ‘Twisted’ by Laurie Halse Anderson

twisted_anderson After a lifetime of invisibility and bullying, all Tyler Miller wants is to be noticed — and quickly. One “Foul Deed” later, Tyler has earned a reputation as a borderline criminal, has a tanned, muscular build from community service and is suddenly attractive to his classmates. Returning to school after a summer of manual labor, Tyler has changed — and everyone seems to be paying attention.

Including Bethany Milbury, the gorgeous senior girl of Tyler’s often inappropriate dreams. Tyler’s bad boy reputation catches Bethany’s attention for the first time, but her twin brother Chip isn’t going to sit back idly and watch any affection develop between the two of them. Tyler has been dodging Chip’s punches for years and, starting the school year at a new height of 6’3″, he finally has the advantage over him — not that Chip would ever admit it.

And neither of the boys would ever acknowledge, or appreciate, how much they actually have in common. Tyler’s father is a verbally abusive minion of a man, reviled by his wife, son and daughter Hannah. The Miller family portrays the classic “cookie cutter,” white-picket-fence on the outside but can’t conceal the cracks in their “perfect” existence. After Tyler’s “Foul Deed,” Mr. Miller cracks down even harder on his son. Likewise, Chip and Bethany’s parents seem to push them both to a near breaking point, always demanding more and more — nothing less than perfection.

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