Book review: ‘If I Stay’ by Gayle Forman

if_i_staySettle in for a heartbreaker.

Once you hear the premise of Gayle Forman’s If I Stay, it doesn’t take long to realize this isn’t exactly going to be a feel-good read . . . but you’d be surprised how ultimately uplifting this tale can be.

Seventeen-year-old Mia is out for a car ride with her parents and little brother Teddy when the horrific happens: on a slick, snowy street, they’re struck by a truck. Her mother and father are killed instantly, Mia comes to realize . . . as she stands outside the vehicle, looking at her own crushed body and those of her loved ones. Everything happens as if in a dream; Mia watches it all unfold, powerless and voiceless.

After she’s transported to a hospital and her grandparents arrive, desperately trying to talk to her as she remains in a coma, our narrator realizes she has a choice: stay in this terrifying new world without her parents, but with her loving boyfriend Adam and extended friends and family, or leave — rejoining her family in whatever exists in the hereafter.

Forman’s small, sharp novel delves deep into what it means to be a family, including those attributes that both divide and unite us. Told over the course of just one day, If I Stay flashes back to Mia’s life in Oregon and shows us clearly the type of brilliant, focused and loving people her parents were. I loved learning about her dad’s rock star past and could definitely feel the fierce protective quality her mom had for those whom she cared about the most. Knowing, as we do, that neither of them survived the crash adds an entirely different dimension to the story . . . and makes the anecdotes all the more powerful. These recollections have shaped Mia into the person she was — and is — today.

My absolute favorite aspect of the story was definitely Mia and Adam’s love — the sweetness that was the beginning of their romance, and the understanding and compassion they had for one another as it deepened. Joined through their love of music, Mia worries before the accident that Adam’s band’s rocketing success will eventually drive them apart — especially considering Mia’s devotion to the cello (not exactly the most punk-rock of instruments). Forman does a remarkable job of capturing the innocence and obsession of first love, my most favorite of topics!

As you’d expect, themes of death and grief are certainly prevalent — and a few graphic passages didn’t sit well with me. I was definitely rooting for Mia and hoping she’d make the right call, but I don’t know what in the world I would do in her situation — and pray I never have to even go there. I guess that’s why the novel left me with a crater-wide pit in my stomach . . . the realism of the story was scary. Because this trauma? It could happen to anyone. And like the dystopian fiction I’ve been so fond of lately, this story could be our story. Any of us.

But overall, a deeply moving but understated novel that does more with less — and chooses to focus on the humanity of the characters — and all of us.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0525421033 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘The Book Thief’ by Markus Zusak

book_thief One of the things I love best about reading is that moment you crack the spine of a novel and realize, without a doubt, that the literary adventure on which you’re about to embark will change your life — your entire view of the world. And for me, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is exactly one of those books.

Death tells the story of the book thief in question — Liesel Meminger, a young German girl sent to live with Rosa and Hans Hubermann in Molching, Germany during the onset of World War II. Nine-year-old Liesel arrives traumatized following the death of her younger brother and her forced separation from her father, taken away under suspicion of Communist leanings by the Hitler regime, and her mother, whom she sees for the last time stranded on a train platform.

Loud-mouthed and abrasive Rosa immediately sets to work straightening Liesel out, but Hans — or Papa — embraces the young girl, teaching her to read the beloved book she’s carried with her from her brother’s snow-covered grave. As Liesel battles nightmare after nightmare in her new bed in a new town, far from the only home she’s ever known, Hans patiently sits with her each evening, comforting her and playing his beloved accordion. A survivor of “the Great War,” or World War I, Hans has some of his own nightmares to face. And one of those Great War memories eventually comes back to meet him face to face — and ask for his assistance, and safety, during one of the most terrifying times in world history.

As she gets adjusted to her new life slowly, Liesel befriends the Steiners, the family next-door on Himmel Street. Young, ambitious and yellow-haired Rudy Steiner takes an immediate shine to Liesel and the two promptly become both inseparable friends and partners in crime. As Poland is invaded in 1939 and the war begins in earnest, Rudy and Liesel further descend into thievery. It starts with a few dozen apples with the other rebellious kids in the neighborhood — after all, everyone is hungry. Everyone. But Liesel is only interested in quenching her thirst for knowledge, eventually befriending the morose wife of the town mayor. Liesel visits Ilsa Hermann in her mansion on the hill, collecting the washing for her mother, and is able to pour through the thousands of titles in the Hermann library. The book thief is overwhelmed by the sheer possibilities of the stories — and it’s these very stories that calm the terrified residents of Himmel Street as the war reaches home, sending them all into makeshift bomb shelters. And help them say goodbye to their loved ones.

It’s hard for me to even describe this book with any clarity, or string along some sentences to talk about how emotional I am after finishing it. Everything I think of seems inadequate — it can’t possibly do it justice. This is a story about love, fear, loss, death, life, family, friendship, evil and, ultimately, hope. The book is divided into several parts and, as mentioned, Death narrates the entire tale — talking about how haunted he/she is by humans, by their willingness to survive, by the way they somehow endure despite everything. Scenes I can’t imagine seeing — feelings I can’t imagine feeling — losses I can’t believe anyone could face. They’re all in The Book Thief, laid bare but told so poetically tears will spring to your eyes. I absolutely sympathized with Death, the one told by “the Boss” to gather up the souls of the dead and carry them from the wrecked, ruined bodies strewn across Dachau, and Stalingrad, and London.

Five hundred souls . . . I carried them in my fingers, like suitcases. Or I’d throw them over my shoulder. It was only the children I carried in my arms.

I loved the fact that Death would foreshadow the entire story, giving us glimpses of an inevitable future as we read along. It didn’t bother me in the least and, when he explicitly tells us that he’s “ruining the ending” of the story just in the hopes of not catching us unaware, I actually appreciated that. I knew the outcome of the entire novel — knew, more likely than not, who would live and die — but that didn’t ruin it in the slightest for me. I was so emotional upon completing the novel, I was happy I didn’t have to be caught up in a terrible shock for the last 30 pages or so. Although plenty of surprises were still there, I had more time to prepare myself for the end.

And, like Liesel, we are constantly reminded of the power of words — of books. What was Hitler without his rhetoric? As Death and Liesel both point out continually, he was nothing more than a tiny tyrant full of eloquent speeches, someone who tapped into fear and anger and resentment after World War I and exploited every advantage. Liesel recognizes the words’ ability to transform and empower and uses them, too — to help ordinary Germans, and the Jews, too. And one Jew in particular.

I don’t want to this review on a depressing note, though — because The Book Thief was anything but depressing. It was inspiring and emotional to realize the adversity mankind has faced, to see the sorrows some endure and still carry on, to realize that people who stood up in places like the dirty gutters of Himmel Street against unimaginable pain and humiliation must surely have a special place in Heaven — especially if Death has anything to say about it. I finished the book sitting on a swing in my back yard, staring up at the sun on an absolutely perfect early spring day. When I closed the last pages, I leaned over to pet my dog on the head and immediately started counting my blessings. There are many. And novels like The Book Thief help us remember what life is really all about — loving, caring and being together. Helping one another. And I’m going to work a little harder to remember that every day.

Don’t miss this book — don’t skip over it because of the heavy subject matter, or push it to the bottom of the TBR stack because of its sheer heft (576 pages, but trust me — they go fast!). Read it and share it with others. Pass it on and on and on.

5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0375842209 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg

Book review: ‘Forever In Blue’ by Ann Brashares

forever_in_blue Lena, Bridget, Carmen and Tibby are back for one last summer — and it’s a hot, confusing and rollicking one at that. Separated once more by distance and, really, their own new dilemmas, these four best friends from Maryland begin to rely so heavily on their beloved Traveling Pants — a pair of jeans that mysteriously fits each of the girls’ unique figures like a glove — to keep their friendships alive. Of course, this turns out to be a mistake. Like all relationships that aren’t given attention and love, even the unbreakable bonds of the sisterhood begin to fray.

Ann Brashares’s Forever in Blue: The Fourth Summer of the Sisterhood is the final book in the Sisterhood series, and I think it finished with a very satisfying conclusion. The jeans shared by all four girls were once the bond to unify them as they would often spend their summers apart — at camps, visiting family — and then reunite in the fall, just in time to resume classes at their high school in Bethesda. But as young women often do, they all grew up — high school graduation gave way to college courses and dorm rooms, and the continuity they once shared in living close together their entire lives was broken.

Lena stays in Providence, Rhode Island to continue painting classes — and meets a fellow classmate who teaches her quite a bit about what it is to let go; Bee signs up for a dig in Turkey, where she spends all day in the dirt — and thinks about who really misses us when we’re gone; Carmen and her bossy, arrogant “friend” Julia attend a theater camp, where Carmen realizes true friends aren’t the ones bringing you scones that may or may not be laced with a laxative or something!; and Tibby fights her own demons in New York City, holding on to Brian while simultaneously letting him go.

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