The DUFF- Kody Keplinger

Bianca loves her best friends, but isn’t interested in dancing at the under-21 dance club in their home town.  While watching her friends have fun on the dance floor, notorious womanizer, Wesley, comes over and informs Bianca that of her friend group, she is the DUFF: the designated, ugly, fat friend.  This gets under Bianca’s skin because, like any high school student, she is a little bit insecure.  Anyways, things kind of blow up in Bianca’s home life and somehow she finds that her only way to deal with it is to find some moments of escape in sex.  With Wesley.  Wesley, who is actually a better listener and friend that Bianca gave him credit for.  But Bianca doesn’t believe in love in high school and certainly not in love with the guy who gets around the most out of their whole class.  So where on earth can this “relationship” take them?

I’d heard a lot of good things about this book, which is why I picked it up in the first place, but I still kind of feel surprised by how much I liked it.  The story reminded me of being in high school more than any other YA books I’ve read.  Bianca’s life is not just her parents getting divorced or her fooling around with Wesley.  She’s got schoolwork and friends.  She isn’t popular, but she’s not an outcast, even though she feels that way some of the time.  Mostly, she’s happy and comfortable with herself, but sometimes she wonders if she isn’t the DUFF and worries about what other people think about her.  Basically, she’s a normal teenager.  And a pretty likeable, interesting one, at that.  She is cynical, but smart and funny and loyal to her friends.  She doesn’t exactly have the best coping skills when it comes to some of the problems in her life, but she’s 16 and human and that makes sense.

As for the romantic plot, it’s nothing new,  just an enemies become lovers plot, but the depth of the characters, particularly Bianca, made for a fun romance.  I liked Wesley, sort of in spite of myself, and as much as I agreed with Bianca that he was probably bad news, I couldn’t help rooting for them to work it out, for Wesley to settle down on just one girl.  There is also a point where Bianca gets caught in sort of a love triangle, as Toby, the sweet, nerdy boy she has crushed on for 3 years, suddenly notices her and as she tries to disentagle herself from whatever is going on with Wesley.  I found that I liked Toby, too, and was kind of sad that there was so little chemistry between him and Bianca.  Also refreshing, plot-wise, is that teenagers have casual sex in this book and nothing bad happens.  It’s really not even a big deal.

I only had one complaint with this book and that is that the home stuff wrapped up a bit too easily.  Bianca’s father is a recovering alcoholic who has a relapse and even shows a violent temper as a drunk.  But he seems to bounce back to recovery pretty easily.  Bianca’s mother has been traveling across the country for years doing speaking events, but after she files for divorce, she suddenly seems to want to connect to and be present for the daughter she’s been ignoring and absent from for so long.  And Bianca accepts that.  These are all big things and the solutions seem a little more simple and drama-free than they’d actually be in real life.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and wish it had been around when I was a teenager.  There is something about the plot and characters that resonated strongly with me as an adult and would have had an even bigger impact on me as a teen.  I imagine this would have landed on my short stack of books that I reread for comfort from time to time.  As it stands, this was absolutely worth my time and I would recommend this as a YA book with appeal to both teens and adults.

 

Illusions of Fate- Kiersten White

I picked this book up on a whim (and also that gorgeous cover) because I’d enjoyed Kiersten White’s story in My True Love Gave to Me and had promised to try out some of her other works.  This is a historical fantasy-paranormal romance mash-up.  Jessamin is in school in Albion (a very English-feeling country) and works herself to the bone trying to get the education she needs to rise out of poverty and servitude.  Jessamin is from Melei, an island colony of Albion, and her dark skin, gender, and national origin put her at a disadvantage for surviving and succeeding in Albion and in school.  Things change for Jessamin when she meets the handsome, rich, and mysterious Finn and is introduced to his world– the wealth, the politics, and the magic.  But, of course, their relationship is in peril due to Finn’s mortal enemy who will stop at nothing to obtain the magical secrets and power that he believes Finn possesses.

What I liked: This was smart fluff– somehow managing to be both serious and fluffy at the same time.  Both Jessamin and Finn are YA stereotypes, but somehow they are more than just the cliche.  Jessamin is smart and beautiful and doesn’t fit in, while Finn is rich and has a paranormal secret and wants to protect Jessamin from his complicated and dangerous political/paranormal dealings.  And they’re destined by fate to be together… except Jessamin is determined to not leave anything to fate and demands to make her own choices and to be in control of her own destiny.  I liked Jessamin’s stubborn determination to get an education and make it on her own without accepting handouts from anyone.  I also enjoyed the post-colonial dialogue in the book and the plot twist at the end surprised me.

What I felt meh about:  Most of this story skimmed the surface when there was definite potential for more depth– more political intrigue, more romance, more character development.

All in all: I have gone on to read more Kiersten White because of this book.  White is clever and writes diverse characters and is just plain fun to read.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post- emily m. danforth

Cameron Post lives in small-town Montana in the early 1990s and is just discovering and exploring her attraction to girls when her parents die and her aunt, Ruth, moves to Montana to care for Cameron.  Ruth has different ideas of what is appropriate behavior for Cameron and is a bit bewildered by Cameron in general.  Ruth is more traditional and conservative and is very involved in her evangelical Christian church.  Cameron is able to coast and hide her lesbianism from everyone.  That is, until she meets Coley Taylor.  Coley and Cameron become friends, but their relationship is super-charged and intense and eventually it leads to some sexual experimentation.  However, they get caught and Coley blames Cameron for everything, insisting she’s been seduced and manipulated.  Ruth sends Cameron off to a de-gaying Christian school, called Promise, out in the Montana wilderness.  Cameron goes into survival mode and has to decide for herself who she wants to be in the face of a system determined to eradicate part of her identity.

There is so much to like about this book.  Cameron felt like a well-developed and authentic teen.  She drinks, smokes pot, shoplifts, and experiments with sex… and with the exception of being shipped off to Promise, there aren’t any real earth-shattering consequences for her rebellious behavior.  She loves movies, swimming, usually ends up being one of the guys, and is quite sarcastic, but there is always a feeling of isolation for her.  One thing that made Cameron different from some of the other LGBTQ characters I’ve read in YA is that she doesn’t really struggle with coming to terms with her own sexuality.  She’s attracted to women, not so much men (though she does give kissing a boy a half-hearted try), she’s a lesbian and that’s the end of that.  For Cameron it is much more a struggle with the outside world and being able to present her true self, sexuality and all, to other people.  In a way, she has a bit more freedom after being sent off to school… her actions and feelings are out in the open and she is able to make friends with a few people who are happy with the whole package.

Not to excuse the reprehensible goal of Promise, but this school wasn’t really what I expected it was going to be.  It was portrayed with a lot of nuance… it’s not a clear-cut horrible place, nor is it the cure that its leaders hope it is.  The intentions of the school’s leaders, Lydia and Rick, are not evil.  They really believe they are saving their students from a worse fate if they change them and they aren’t abusive or neglectful.  Perhaps the best way to see Rick and Lydia is as misunderstanding.  They want to help, but approach it in a way that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of homosexuality.  There is a lot of therapy and pseudoscience, which of course can be dangerous, but Cameron is strong and finds a way to stand against it, while complying with the rules and keeping herself afloat.  An awful way to live, for sure, but I think there are parts of the therapy and self-reflection that were beneficial to Cameron, whose grief over the loss of her parents and anger with Ruth and Coley need to be addressed so that she can move on.  At the same time, the message of the therapy and the school is that there is a part of Cameron’s identity that needs to be eliminated or changed and while Cameron doesn’t really question who she is in the face of it, it does take its toll and wears on her.  We see the harm the school can do much more in Cameron’s classmates, who believe that who they are and how they feel is sinful and that they must change who they are at the core in order to be accepted by God.

Another highlight of this book was its setting– both in time and place.  The events of this book didn’t take place that long ago (1992), but it is amazing to see how different Cameron’s experience is than the experience of LGBTQ characters whose stories take place 20 years after her’s.  There is no coming out in high school in the 1990s.  There is no wide cultural acceptance of homosexuality or gay marriage.  And it’s not to say that attitudes are completely different now, but for Cameron, there is no real choice except isolation, fear of discovery, and lack of acceptance, particularly in her small, conservative town.  I also really enjoyed the Montana setting, from the dusty cowtown where Cameron grows up to the mountains and woods in western Montana, where Promise is located.  Quake Lake, a lake formed by an earthquake in western Montana, plays an important role in Cameron’s family history and becomes a powerful image in the story.

My biggest complaint with this story had to do with its pacing and length.  It takes over half of the book for Cameron to be sent to Promise and I think a lot of Cameron’s early history could have been cut out without hurting the overall story.  At the same time, most of the story is slow, detailed, and drawn-out, but the ending came very quickly and left so much unresolved.  I really wished that the story began when Cameron met Coley and that the ending would have been fleshed out a bit more, giving us some idea what happened to Cameron after Promise.

All in all, I feel like this is a book that will stick with me.  Cameron is an admirable and memorable character in YA.  I liked danforth’s writing and would happily read another book from her, especially if she sets it in the West again.  It’s a story that gives you a lot to think about and even if it was too long and slow, is one I’d recommend to those looking for a good LGBTQ/coming of age story.

This Song Will Save Your Life- Leila Sales

Elise is 16 and miserable.  She has no friends at school and every attempt she makes to try to make friends or fit in blows up in her face.  She feels so hopeless that she thinks about killing herself, going so far as to cut herself with a razor on her wrists.  She calls a girl from school who calls 911.  Flash forward 6 months and Elise is pretty much on house arrest because her parents are worried about her.  She has people to sit with at lunch now, but isn’t measurably much happier.  Especially since there is some pretty vicious online bullying going on.  The only thing keeping her kind of sane is sneaking out at night to take long, meandering walks around town.  That is, until she stumbles upon a night club on one of her midnight walks.  She is instantly accepted for who she is by Vicki, one of the nightclub regulars, and discovers a passion for DJing.  Finding her crowd and her passion really turns things around for Elise, as she finds life worth living and a place where she can truly accept and love herself.

This wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t really a story for me.  I didn’t ever want to quit reading it and it was decently written, but I had some major quibbles with the story and the characters that made it hard for me to really get into the book.  Elise is obsessed with being popular/cool and that felt out of place for me for a character who is 16 years old.  This desperation for popularity seemed a bit immature for Elise… sure, I could see her wanting friends and feeling isolated, but the need to be cool felt more like an 11 year old’s wish than a 16 year old’s.  At the same time, Elise’s time on the nightclub and DJ scene seemed to belong to a much older character, at least a freshman in college.  It was hard for me to buy that the bouncer would not only let her in without ID, but that the club owner would offer her her own DJ party when she is younger than legal drinking age.  And her parents later let her continue to attend these parties because she’s so passionate about it.  That’s a lot of lapse of judgment/looking the other way at the law for me to really buy into.

I also had some real trouble with Elise’s suicide attempt.  I am not a fan of suicide as a plot device and that is exactly what it was here… some dramatization to show how seriously awful Elise’s situation is.  And while there is mention of Elise getting therapy and while finding DJing doesn’t instantly solve Elise’s problems or insecurities, I feel like the suicide thing is a cheap shot that isn’t really dealt with on any serious level.  But I really hate suicide in novels, so this probably comes down to personal preference more than anything.

All that to say, this book just pushed a lot of my no-go buttons for YA contemporary.  I didn’t hate it and thought the glimpse into DJing and nightlife was pretty fascinating, but when I spend most of a book wanting to make major revisions to it (make Elise older, cut out the suicide angle, etc.), it’s probably not a book that is meant for me.

 

 

 

Throne of Glass- Sarah J. Maas

Celaena Sardothien is a renowned assassin, serving time as a slave in the salt mines of Endovier.  One day she is presented to Prince Dorian, who tells her he hopes she will be his representative in a competition hosted by his father, the king, to find the king’s next champion.  If Celaena wins, she will be obligated to 4 years of service before earning her freedom.  Given that her only other choice is certain death in the mines, Celaena agrees to the bargain with Dorian and is brought to the king’s Glass Castle.  The competition ensues and it becomes clear that Celaena has only one real competitor to worry about.  That is, until the champions start dying gruesome deaths at the hands of a mysterious creature roaming the castle.  In the midst of the competition and the murders, Celaena finds herself growing close to both Prince Dorian and the captain of the king’s guard, Captain Chaol Westfall, perhaps even falling in love with them.

I have had very mixed success with the blogosphere’s favorite YA fantasy series.  I did not like Shadow and Bone, but loved The Girl of Fire and Thorns.  So I went into Throne of Glass nervous.  It seemed like everyone loved it and there’s not much worse than being the one person who just doesn’t get it.  Well, sorry to say, I don’t get Throne of Glass.

For one thing, the writing is excessively descriptive and flowery.  There are endless depictions of Celaena’s dresses, people’s glittering eyes, and Chaol’s red cape blowing crimson in the breeze.  Maas tends to overuse color words to the point that crimson, scarlet, obsidian, raven, jade, sapphire become overworked alternatives to saying red, black, green, and blue.  It was just too much for me and I found myself zoning out during descriptive parts because they just weren’t good.  I know fantasy is all about the details, but I don’t know, I feel like Maas tended to give overwrought descriptions of dresses rather than putting words into describing the world or the events of the plot.

That brings me around to the second issue that I had with this book, which is that the plot is totally convoluted.  There are a million things going on– from the competition for king’s champion to the murders to the love triangle to some political/historical/magical conflict and intrigue, but none of them actually have any impact on Celaena’s outcome.  It is clear from the on-set that Celaena will win the champion competition.  It is clear who the bad guys are and that the murders are not an actual threat to Celaena herself.  It is clear that you will have to read the entire series to come to a resolution on the love triangle.  This book read like 400 pages of backstory, basically.  (And to think that there are actually prequel novellas…)

All that to say, there were aspects of this book that made me think there is probably more to this series than I got out of this one book.  There a things going on the background that I was truly curious about in terms of the history and politics and magic, which might become important later and which, if brought more to the forefront, would probably ensure an interesting and action-packed series ahead.  I also thought the love triangle was one of the better ones I’ve ever read.  Both guys are good choices, who are attracted to Celaena for her character, not just her beauty.  Also, Celaena herself was an interesting and unique character.  She’s arrogant and bratty, can kick butt and take names, but also loves reading and shiny things.

At the end of the day, though, I don’t have any desire to keep on with this series.  I think it suffers from too much detail, too much set-up, too much of a desire to tell us every little detail, while delivering nothing of real substance.

 

I’ll Give You the Sun- Jandy Nelson

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I’ll Give You the Sun is told in alternating narratives by twins Jude and Noah.  Noah’s point of view focuses on the summer the twins are 13.  Noah and Jude are very close, but starting to grow apart.  Jude has fallen in with the cool kids and fights constantly with their mother about clothes, makeup, and boys.  Left to fend for himself while Jude hangs out with her new friends, Noah is super uncomfortable in his skin and is obsessed with getting into the private arts school, hoping that it will finally be the place where he fits in.  He draws or paints constantly, if not on paper, in his mind.  This summer is also the summer he meets Brian, another slightly weird kid he develops a deep, intense, immediate understanding and friendship with.  More than that, he begins to realize he is attracted to Brian romantically and the potential rejection and weight of his longing overwhelm him.

Jude’s narrative occurs three years later, when the twins are 16 and their lives are drastically different from what we would have expected.  Their mother has died, but her presence is felt everywhere.  Jude is the one who got into art school, not Noah, and she has no friends and lives in this isolated world of her own creation, haunted by the ghosts of her mother and her grandmother and obsessed with her grandmother’s “bible” of old wives’ tales.  Noah has grown into his own, runs track at the public school, and has tons of friends.  Jude worries he’s become the normal one.  In a quest to get her art school career back on track, Jude seeks out a reclusive local sculptor.  The sculptor and his troubled British assistant/surrogate son hold the key to breaking through Jude’s grief and starting the healing process between Jude and her brother.

What I liked:  Whoa.  This book totally got under my skin in a way I did not expect it to.  I loved the writing style, though I imagine the writing skates the line between beautiful and purple, so not everyone will love it.  Nelson writes very metaphorically, which at first turned me off.  I set this book down for a few days and when I came back to it, knowing what I was getting into, I was hooked.  Nelson created such rich imagery that I was really taken in, particularly with Noah’s story.  Everything was just so colorful.  I was very invested in Noah’s love story, as well.  It was so wonderful to see Noah find someone he clicked with, someone that made him so happy.  And it was just as heartbreaking to see Noah and Brian pushing their feelings for each other away.  And it was exhilarating when they finally (FINALLY) get their chance together!  I also really appreciated Nelson’s depiction of grief, as well as the weight and tension that lies and secrets create in Jude and Noah’s family.  There is so much unsaid, so much silence after their mother dies.  If I was a person who said “the feels,” you could say that this book gave me “the feels.”

What I felt meh about:  I had a much tougher time with Jude as a character than I did with Noah.  She is in the thick of her grief, which takes some really weird forms, and it was hard to want to spend time with her.  Even with that creating some hesitation for me, I could mostly deal with Jude’s story, because it is about healing and redemption, but her romance with the British guy was my absolute least favorite part of this book.  Jude’s romantic storyline felt forced, shoved in by someone in marketing so that you could sell this book to teen girls who won’t read a book without a straight male to swoon over.  So to fill that quota, Nelson wrote in some bad boy turned good British hipster that hits about every stereotype on the swoony guy for teenage girl checklist.  Nothing felt right to me about Jude’s love story and that was even more obvious because of how well-done and beautiful Noah’s love story was.

All in all:  I was pretty much blown away by this book in terms of the writing style and the emotional depth.  I’m eager to read Nelson’s other book, The Sky is Everywhere.  I’d recommend this to fans of contemporary and coming of age stories, but I’d say be sure to check out a few pages of the writing before committing.  I know this writing style is unique and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

Say What You Will- Cammie McGovern

I kind of like the format I’ve been using for my mini-reviews, so I’ve decided to try it out for my “long-form” reviews, too.

Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

Amy and Matthew are going into their senior year of high school.  Amy has cerebral palsy and is confined to a wheelchair and can only talk through a computer.  She has spent most of her life devoted to academic achievement always accompanied by either her overbearing mother or an adult aide to help her with the tasks she cannot physically complete on her own.  As her senior year approaches, she gets the idea to hire student aides so she can start making friends.  She is particularly interested in getting to know Matthew better, as Matthew is the only person she’s ever met who has talked straight to her.  However, Matthew is dealing with his own troubles, particularly the obsessive compulsive disorder that has taken over his life.  But Matthew is curious about Amy and Amy manages to talk him into being one of her student aides.  Over the course of the year, the two grow unexpectedly close.

What I liked: I was really fond of both Amy and Matthew and thought that they were well-developed characters.  I don’t know much about what it feels like to have cerebral palsy or OCD, but I felt that these issues were portrayed appropriately, that I learned something about them, and that they never defined who Amy or Matthew were.  Amy and Matthew’s relationship was really special, a friendship that surprises them both by becoming more, and I couldn’t NOT root for them.  This was also a story that grabbed me from the start and I had a hard time putting it down.
What I felt meh about: The plot heads to crazytown midway through the book, when Amy heads off to college, while Matthew stays at home.  Spoiler: Amy gets oops pregnant from her one and only sexual encounter with another guy, which was mostly just an attempt to make Matthew jealous.  And then she and her baby almost die from preeclampsia/prematurity, but somehow this makes her and Matthew grow close again.  Let’s just say, it gets kind of soap opera-y.  This was disappointing because this story would have been just as successful, and perhaps more powerful, with a less melodramatic plot.  I will say, though, that while I rolled my eyes, the silly plot twist never kept me from wanting to read on.
All in all: I did really enjoy this story and these characters, even though it turned into a soap opera halfway through.  I also liked seeing the diversity in characters and would like to see this kind of nuanced portrayal of mental illness or physical disability more often.  However, I’m not sure I’d recommend this widely just because of the crazy plot twist.