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 review: ‘The Heart Is Not a Size’ by Beth Kephart

The Heart Is Not a SizeBest friends Georgia and Riley don’t keep much from one another — but each is bearing a tart fruit of secrecy in different ways. When an opportunity to visit Mexico as part of a group community project comes up, Georgia longs to get away from her stagnant present before college . . . but is afraid to go alone. She convinces Riley to sign up, too — and their secrets can’t help but emerge in the baking-hot sun of Anapra.

Beth Kephart’s The Heart Is Not a Size is a story of friendship, trust and acceptance. With Kephart’s trademark lyrical language and descriptions that feel like a pierce through the heart, her young adult novel struck a chord with me — and likely will with anyone who has had a best friend.

Georgia is the sort of talented girl wracked by self doubt we all remember from our teen years — or were ourselves. I definitely relate to her body-image issues and uncomfortableness in her own skin, especially compared to Riley’s so-thin-she’s-disappearing presence. The novel is about Riley’s on-the-surface eating disorder, yes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about self-esteem and longing and desperately wanting to belong, but not knowing how to start.

It’s Georgia falling to pieces without anyone to bolster her up, and learning to save herself . . . and also about Riley still being Riley, impossible and beautiful, and her longing to spread beauty to others when she cannot see it in herself. I wanted to smack Riley’s mother for the number she’s done on her daughter, and these self-confidence issues made me really think about how I will want to speak with and to a future daughter/child someday. My heart ached for them both, especially as Georgia struggled with anxiety and doubt. Who hasn’t?

The Heart Is Not a Size is a quick, atmospheric read that dropped me in the middle of the cracking villages of Anapra and broke my heart for its inhabitants. Kephart herself visited the village, as she notes at the end of the book, and her imagery is amazing. From the dolls abandoned atop crumbling roofs to the eager, hopeful faces of children to the wolfish dog who stalks their lodging, it was so descriptive and engulfing. For a few days, I was truly a part of their expedition.

Though I wished at times to have bonded more with Riley outside of Georgia’s lens, I think the dependency of their friendship — and how they learn to separate, just a bit — is important. I couldn’t help picturing Riley as the sort of Head Cheerleader Princess-type that tortured peons in school, but I know isn’t right. I just felt like I got to know Georgia much better than her best friend, though I guess that’s to be expected. Georgia is our narrator, after all.

Fans of young adult fiction, socially-conscious novels and lyrical writing will find much to love in Kephart’s story of acceptance and forgiveness. It was a beautifully-written work I will remember.


4 out of 5!

Pub: 2010 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg


Book review: ‘The Nature of Jade’ by Deb Caletti

The Nature of JadeAs part of my New Year’s resolution to enjoy the items I already own, I’ve decided to start reading — really reading — many of the novels I’ve had languishing on my bookshelves for years.

Like this one. Received in our blogger goodie bag back at the Book Blogger Convention in 2010 (!), I’ve been meaning to pick up Deb Caletti’s novel for, oh . . . well, about four years now.

So was it worth the wait?

Eh, sort of. But we’ll get there.

So here we have Jade DeLuna, a bright high school senior who privately battles a panic disorder. Stricken with anxiety for years, Jade finds focusing on the animals at a nearby zoo — the elephants, specifically — takes her out of her own head. She watches the live cam online most evenings, occasionally seeing a young man in a red jacket pop on her screen. He’s cute and uncertain, it seems — just like her.

And he’s got a kid strapped to his back.

A little investigative work — and some “coincidences” in timing — eventually lead her to come face-to-face with Sebastian, a local bookstore owner with a pained past. As Jade begins to volunteer with the elephants and learn more about them (and herself), she must come to terms with whether she’s ready and strong enough to let this kind of love filter into her life.

Deb Caletti’s The Nature of Jade started off strong for me. As someone who also deals with anxiety, I could definitely relate to our heroine’s struggles to live a “normal” life while keeping her feelings quiet. It was easy to empathize, really — almost too easy.

The elephant plot thread? Interesting. Not something I’ve seen before. While volunteering at the zoo, Jade meets lots of interesting folks and, of course, Sebastian — as well as his young son. The story of how the pair came to be on a houseboat with Sebastian’s grandma is interesting . . . but as the storyline progresses, it all seemed to be a little . . . weird.

I don’t know how to explain it. I guess it started with a sense that, while kind, Sebastian wasn’t quite what he seems. I never quite . . . bonded with him. Felt for him, maybe, but wasn’t nearly as enamored with him as Jade was. The whole progression of their relationship seemed odd, especially since the only thing initially pulling him to her was that, after hours, he would find himself gazing at the elephants the same way Jade would. Which she knew because she saw him on the online cam, looking moodily off at the sky. Just like Jade did.

Maybe it doesn’t sound that weird, but it was just . . . strange.

There were parts of The Nature of Jade I really liked, including our lead’s emotional journey from uncertain high schooler to rising college student. She gains confidence, poise and maturity, even as other aspects of her life begin to unravel. I found her parents’ marriage struggles to be realistic and heartbreaking, and I loved the dynamic she shares with Oliver, her little brother.

What I didn’t love? Sebastian’s back story. Without spoilers, I felt the rationale guiding his decisions to be . . . thin. That his grandmother aided him felt a little fishy to me, honestly, and I had a tough time relating to what he was doing. It seemed impulsive, strange and selfish, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the whole thing was going to play out. It was working for now, maybe, but what about five years from now? Or ten? His son would start asking questions. Everything would unravel.

And that distracted me. Not that I found Sebastian to be a truly bad dude or anything, but what was he doing drawing Jade into this whole disaster? True love and blah-ity blah blah, perhaps, but it seemed unfair. And the whole “I thought you were older” justification for their relationship didn’t strike the right chords with me. Or, like, any chords.

I’m being harsher in this review than I felt while reading it, maybe, but reflection creates differing opinions. It was a quick and mostly satisfying story, but not one I found especially memorable. Still, for fans of young adult and those who long to see anxiety disorders represented in YA culture, The Nature of Jade was a decent read.


3.5 out of 5!

Pub: Feb. 27, 2007 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘The Age of Miracles’ by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Earth is slowing. Days are no longer true “days.” Phrases like the “crack of dawn” lose all meaning, and everyone is taking a stand. The world’s citizens divide into those who follow “clock time” — and those who don’t. Our 24-hour days eventually stretch to 40 hours or longer, with days or weeks stretching with no sunlight. Weather patterns shift; birds begin to mysteriously fall from the sky. Gravity alters. Life begins to dissolve.

For 11-year-old Julia, her sunny life in California is forever altered — and not just by the government-mandated time changes. The Slowing affects everyone: her parents, who experience a sudden rift in their marriage; her friends, who retreat into religion or new acquaintances; her young love interest, who has already experienced a devastating loss and isn’t ready for more.

While some of Earth’s denizens wrestle with the Slowing as a harbinger of the End Times, others use it as the impetus to shake up their quiet existences — joining cults, switching spouses, leaving jobs. As a middle-schooler, Julia understands little of the world’s changes . . . but The Age of Miracles is told from an older, wiser and more broken-down Julia: a woman from the future who knows things don’t pan out well. But we never quite get there.

And that’s my biggest issue — and disappointment — with Karen Thompson Walker’s novel: we never quite get there. Wherever “there” is. We know Julia is reflecting on her youth in California from a decade or so down the line, but we never feel the true grips of despair because it’s all so . . . vague. Despite being a true scaredy-cat, I came into this book hoping for a repeat experience of Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It. That book captivated me, terrified me, left me aching for more . . . and even when life seemed unbearably bleak, Pfeffer knew how to pull us along and save us at the very last moment.

There was no saving here. The tone of the book? Bleak. Confused. No one is redeemed; no one gets saved. Julia is lost in a quagmire of longing and uncertainty, but we never see the Earth deteriorate past a point of recognition. Where rural Pennsylvania turns into a minefield of desperation in Life As We Knew It, suburban California just feels so mundane in The Age of Miracles. I wanted something to really happen, and . . . well, nothing much actually happens. Nothing to satisfy me, anyway.

But here’s the rub: I liked Julia. Because the tale is told from her older, first-person viewpoint, she often comes across as absurdly mature for an almost 12-year-old — but that goes with the narration. Her maturity didn’t bother me . . . in fact, I liked that she was wise enough to discuss the beginning and results of the Slowing so clearly, even if it lacked any urgency.

That’s what was missing for me: that sense of foreboding. I tore through Pfeffer’s novel with my heart in my throat, unable to focus on anything that wasn’t about a lunar disaster, and The Age of Miracles — while well-written and lyrical — lacked any commotion or connection. Honestly, I found much of it boring . . . not something I’d expect when discussing the potential end of the world. (Though we know it doesn’t end.) It did provide some food for thought, especially about the potential breakdown of society, but it wasn’t enough.

Fans of dystopian novels and young adult, coming-of-age tales might find Julia to be a young woman with whom they can relate, but it lacked that urgency that keeps me reading. I didn’t need fiery explosions, volcanoes erupting, nuclear holocaust or a perpetual winter . . . but I did want something to ignite in The Age of Miracles. Like, um, my interest.

But alas.


3 out of 5!

Pub: Jan. 15, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Audio copy borrowed from my local library


Book review: ‘The Tragedy Paper’ by Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy PaperTim Macbeth is used to attention — just not the kind he’d want. As an albino teen, it’s rare that his appearance doesn’t set off a wave of stares and whispers. At the encouragement of his mother and stepfather, switching to a prestigious New York boarding school to finish his senior year seems like a chance at a fresh start . . . but whether or not he has any fun, Tim already has his college career hand-selected and waiting for him. He just has to get through the next few months.

Then he meets Vanessa Sheller. On a snowy night in Chicago, a canceled flight pushes two strangers together in a shuttered airport. Unused to being treated “normally,” especially by a beautiful girl, Tim questions everything about their time together — but never the way he’s starting to feel about her. When the two are surprisingly reunited at the Irving School, Tim assumes he’ll go back to feeling marginalized and alone. That Vanessa, so popular and lovely, will forget all about him.

But she doesn’t.

Elizabeth LaBan’s The Tragedy Paper is an arresting, heart-in-your-throat young adult novel that clamped its hooks in me the way only the best teen fiction can do. Though I could draw similarities between the novel and John Green’s Looking For Alaska, LaBan has penned a story that is wholly her own. We’re given an entertaining, heartbreaking and fast-paced beginning and middle, a book I really couldn’t put down . . . and maybe that’s why I wound up feeling let down and conflicted by the close. But we’ll get there.

So my description, written as carefully to avoid spoilers as I could, fails to mention the second of our two narrators: Duncan. A semester after Tim’s story unfolds, we know some Terrible, Rotten, No Good, Very Bad Thing has happened — and it’s Duncan who feels awful about it. Tim records the full, unedited story of his hidden life with Vanessa for Duncan to find and . . . hopefully release his guilt? Understand why things went down as they did? Forgive himself? Maybe all of the above.

So Duncan’s story is told in real time, and Tim’s is a recollection of the past. I was fully immersed in both worlds, though I tended to favor Tim’s storytelling (and his plot line was simply more interesting). I spent most of The Tragedy Paper, so named for a thesis all seniors must complete for English class, trying to figure out Duncan’s role in this Terrible, Awful Thing that transpires. Beyond that, he was a little dull.

But that’s not entirely Duncan’s fault. It’s just that Tim is so intelligent, wry, endearing — charismatic precisely because he believes that’s something he’ll never be. As he recalls the evening he spends with Vanessa in Chicago, I could feel the raw and gut-wrenching emotion Tim experiences at being so close to something he believes he’ll never have. Though he doesn’t believe he’s obsessed with his appearance, Tim’s albinism influences every aspect of his life. It makes him feel so distinctly “Other” that he fails to connect with friends — anyone aside from his family and teachers. That separateness is exactly why I believe he falls so hard for Vanessa. It’s all so very “Gatsby”-esque, you know? She is the physical embodiment of a life he’ll never have.

So how to explain her feelings?

Vanessa is a puzzling character. For one, she has a boyfriend. Not that, you know, that’s a huge thing to change when you’re 17 — but the boyfriend, of course, is a jerk. Tim stands in stark contrast to Patrick, the brutish jock who decides early on that his girlfriend’s associations with the new albino kid just aren’t going to work. I spent most of the story waiting for a big blow-out, on edge and nervous about where LaBan was taking us.

I can’t fully express how sucked into this story I was until the final chapters, friends, and maybe that’s why I’m having such a hard time coping with the eventual truth. As Duncan finally discovers — and reveals — what happened during an ill-fated senior prank, I got angry. Confused. Disappointed. Not because I couldn’t handle the truth — because I couldn’t help but rage, That’s it? THAT’S IT?

Because seriously. Seriously. We’ve just traveled 300-ish pages with Duncan feeling all guilty and sick and sorrowful for something that happened and Vanessa being all cute but flighty and Tim revealing in pieces and puzzles what actually happened on one snowy evening at the Irving School and I thought, “OMG, something crazy and terrible is going to happen!” but then . . .

Well.

Do I still recommend The Tragedy Paper? Absolutely. LaBan’s writing is strong and affecting and interesting. Tim is such a unique, excellent character — vulnerable, tough, worldly, brave, as stupid in the face of love as any of us. Despite feeling like someone had popped my “Go Tim!” balloon by the close, I was too drawn into the novel to rate it anything less than four stars.

Fans of John Green, realistic teen fiction, boarding school settings and strong first-person narration will find plenty to love in LaBan’s novel. The overarching idea of “tragedy” — what is a tragedy? what’s not a tragedy? — was compelling, too, and provided a fascinating lens through which to view the story. Was the conclusion truly a tragedy? Was it avoidable? If it was avoidable, is that what truly makes it a tragedy? Or was it all just . . . meant to be?

I have so many questions, so many talking points since finishing . . . and this isn’t a story I’ll get out of my head anytime soon.


4 out of 5!

Pub: January 8, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review


Book review: ‘Going Vintage’ by Lindsey Leavitt

Going VintageAfter she discovers her boyfriend cheating on her with a virtual girlfriend, 16-year-old Mallory decides she’s over technology. Her grandma got along just fine without FriendSpace and smartphones and digital gossip back in the ’60s, and Mallory decides “going vintage” is the way to sidestep her problems. Armed with a list created by Grandma fifty years earlier on how to make the most of her school year, Mallory recruits her sister in a scheme to shun modern technology until the current storm passes.

And pass it does — though not in the way Mallory expects. Jeremy doesn’t take the break-up well, even given his own indiscretions, and goes on a mission to win her back — though a handsome newcomer seems intent on showing Mallory what she’s been missing. Family rivalry, vintage throwbacks, sisterly love . . . all in a day’s work.

Lindsey Leavitt’s Going Vintage is a cute, offbeat young adult novel that will find a home with hip teens. Since anything old-school is trendy right now, I definitely appreciated that the story felt quite of-the-moment. You know how sometimes you read teen novels and think, “No one would ever talk like this, dress like that, react that way . . .” ? And it totally ruins it for you because, you know, you might not be a teen yourself, but you’re not that old and clueless? Doesn’t happen here.

Mallory herself is a pretty empowered gal. Not to go all “she’s a good role model!” on you, but honestly: she’s a good role model. Not content to wrap herself up with a dude, our girl makes her own decisions — and has no problem bucking trends. When a cute but slimy boyfriend does her wrong, she ditches him. When everyone else is glued to texting, she favors a more “old-fashioned” communication: actually talking on the phone. On a landline. To Oliver, who is absolutely adorable.

I fell a little in love with Oliver . . . and not just because it’s my favorite boy’s name. He’s Jeremy’s polar opposite, and his banter with Mallory couldn’t be matched. I loved his enthusiasm and Eagle Scout qualities — though he had a bit of a sassy streak, too. Basically, I loved that every character in Going Vintage left doormat status and developed a personality of their own.

And though the story has an overarching theme — don’t let technology rule your life — it has a surprising moral, too: don’t wax poetic about the past. Mallory’s grandmother, the inspiration for “going vintage” in the first place, does her part to keep her granddaughter rooted in the present. I loved Ginnie, Mallory’s kid sister, and her frankness. I also liked that the Bradshaws had offbeat jobs: Mal’s dad is an “antiques dealer,” which means he frequently prowls abandoned storage units looking for deals (think “Storage Wars”), while Mal’s mom has a surprising but modern hobby that generates the family cash (it’s a secret!). Another way in which this “vintage” story felt very current.

Fans of young adult fiction looking for a light, quick read will find much to enjoy in Going Vintage. Though it took me about 50 pages to get truly invested in the story, I couldn’t stop reading once I’d been hooked. I liked that the high school characters didn’t act too old or too young, and I appreciated that Leavitt could right some serious witty banter. A fun, enjoyable story.


4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0345532740 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Digital review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review