Archives for posts with tag: romance

Did you have a chance to read Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Boys? If not, please do so immediately. That way you can then enjoy the second installment: The Dream Thieves (Scholastic, $18.99, out today). The Dream Thieves is written like a dream. I found myself moving out of this state of unearthliness, trying to figure out what what was real and what wasn’t. In the context of the book, magic exists. And the characters and the setting are so realistic, I become convinced that their reality is my reality and that magic must exist in this world, too. The Dream Thieves is slightly darker than The Raven Boys, but darker in a way that is entirely appropriate. Even happy dreams are bizarre and twisted. Dreams turn you up-side-down and in-side-out. They mess with you in delightfully terrifying ways. How many times have you woken up with the thought, ‘thank god, it was just a dream’, but then later you can’t remember — was it a dream or wasn’t it? Stiefvater’s second volume of the Raven Cycle brings up all of these confusing emotions. And it is brilliant. Like dreams, I can’t quite explain the book either. I know that if I start to describe it, that the description won’t do the book justice. Or I’ll get caught up trying to clarify a point that isn’t really important. I’ll just say that this book focuses more on Ronan and Adam. Like dreams, it all makes sense when you’re reading the book. But yes, it is absolutely vital that you read The Raven Boys first. In fact, I wish I had read it again right before I read the second book. I’m looking forward to when all the volumes are out and I can read them all in one go.
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9780062217134Robyn Schneider’s Severed Heads, Broken Hearts (Katherine Teagen Books, $17.99, out today) contains some really horrific and traumatic experiences. The title says it all. There is indeed a severed head, and a multitude of broken hearts. How a book that starts with a decapitation and ends with the death of a dog (via coyote) manages to not be the most depressing books ever is kind of miraculous. Yet the story is a rather light, romantic, and universal quest about how to break away from the facade you’ve somehow created to become the person you really are.

Ezra is a varsity tennis player, slated to become Prom King, with the stereotypical perfect girlfriend. Then the girlfriend cheats on him and he gets hit by a car (see horrific and traumatic). Ezra starts senior year with a cane and a tremendous amount of uncertainty about where he belongs, now that he’s no longer the tennis player/prom king, with a hot girlfriend. Ezra is an interesting character; he’s smarter than anyone (including himself) seems to have realized, he’s witty, he’s more of a leader than he understands, and he’s a defender of children’s playgrounds. He’s a little naive, but that’s where Toby and Cassidy come in. They show him a world beyond the security of his neighborhood and push him outside of his comfort zone. Cassidy is the unique, beautiful girl, who is just out of reach and Toby is the best friend that somewhere in middle school Ezra forgot to be friends with. Ezra sees them as taking him on a new journey. What he doesn’t learn until later is that they are the journey, one he started after the accident with his own first steps.

*** Since the above review was written back in March, the name and cover of this book have changed. I’m of two minds. I liked the title. I can see why it might not be so ‘marketable’, but it was distinctive and true to the story. The new title, The Beginning of Everything, sounds like too many other YA novels. But this title, too, is true to the story. This book isn’t about finding yourself in high school, it’s about figuring out that you need to find yourself. Or discovering that who you’ve been is not necessarily who you are. Or who you will be. And it’s a story about the journey that leads to that journey. I’ve decided to keep the old image in, though along with my original impressions. If nothing else, for a glimpse into the publishing industry, which I find enormously fascinating. But if you walk into your local bookstore and request Robyn Schneider’s new book, be sure to ask for The Beginning of Everything. It still starts with a severed head and it still ends with a dead dog. And there are broken hearts. But that is just the beginning.

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Note: I should have read the marketing materials better! The Beginning of Everything is now due out in September.

Like all booksellers, I get this request all the time, “S/He loved The Hunger Games and wants to read something else just like it”. Well there really hasn’t been anything Just Like It. I end up asking what the reader liked about The Hunger Games: was it the adventure, the dystopian society, the romance, the strong characters, and then I recommend books that match. Well now there is officially a book (which will be a trilogy) for fans who want to read a book that has all the components of The Hunger GamesThe Testing, by Joelle Charbonneau (HMH, $17.99, out today), has it all, oppressive centralized government, violence, teens struggling for survival in a test (game) that they don’t fully understand, romance, shattered American landscape, colonies of the society. The only reservation I had while reading The Testing is that it is *almost* too similar, but with a little less of an edge. Cia is smart and resourceful, but not as fierce as Katniss. Tomas is a complex companion, but not as heroic as Gale or as solid as Peeta. The government is oppressive, but not as brutal as Panem, at least not at first. The testing starts with rather boring school-type tests. It’s like reading about someone taking the SATs, which is even worse than actually taking the SATs. Nevertheless, this first book is clearly laying the groundwork for the trilogy and I’m willing to hold out final judgement until reading the rest of the series. And I will say that once the adventure picked up, and we start to see Cia in action, rather than just hear her commentary, I was very engrossed in the story. I don’t yet fully understand what motivates Cia. Katniss wanted to survive. Against all odds. Cia doesn’t seem to want to win. She’s more collaborative. She does want to live, but not necessarily at the expense of others. Despite the horrors of the test, she still wants to pass, which I don’t fully understand. But again, by the end of the first book, I was hooked. Furthermore, although the testing is officially complete, the first book sets up the next two, with a very intriguing twist. Whether you read The Testing because you loved The Hunger Games, or pick it up on its own merits, The Testing contains a solid story that is likely to get even better in the next two installments. To be fair, I was one of those people who didn’t like adventure of The Hunger Games nearly as much as I loved societal complexities and psychological development of Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

Update: I wrote the above after only reading The Testing, because I wanted to write about the book on its own merits. However, I’ve now had a chance to read Independent Study and my opinions have developed. The second volume takes the story in a very different direction than The Hunger Games, as suspected. In order to avoid too many spoilers, here is my general impression rather than a description.

I’ve been a student and an instructor in higher education. I know that sometimes college and university exams can feel like life and death. In Independent Study, they are life and death. I didn’t mean to, but I stayed up until 2 am and read the book in one sitting. There was no good stopping place and the pace was solid enough to compel me to continue reading. Cia is super smart and I like that about her. She is thoughtful, which I like even more. She takes the time to assess situations and come to conclusions. She trusts her instincts and she’s willing to trust herself, even when others doubt her. The fact that she is often right, is believable because, as readers, we see how she carefully and rationally reasons through situations. At no point did I feel like she ‘knew’ something that she shouldn’t know. I like that she’s collaborative. I like that she has morals and ethics. I didn’t like the fact that she seems hung up on a guy that has not proven himself to be worth her time. So far Tomas is too much of a tell rather than show character. Cia loves him, but the story hasn’t given me any reason to understand why. Also, as someone who is incredibly smart and capable, she expresses these random desires for Tomas’s help, even when she’s achieved so much without it. Those moments, often one sentence in an otherwise interesting scene, were jarring and unnecessary. I hope this relationship resolves satisfactorily in the final volume, because right now it seems arbitrary. Cia is a strong enough character to carry Independent Study on her own, and I’m far more interested in learning more about her other classmates than I am about her relationship with Tomas. That relationship really is my only complaint at this point. It seems like romance for the sake of romance, rather than furthering the story, but again I’ll hold out on final judgement until I read the third volume. Overall, I do recommend this trilogy and I’ll be letting customers know that while The Testing might be somewhat similar to The Hunger Games, Independent Study is very much its own story.

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Naomi Shihab Nye’s Habibi is one of those amazing books that I feel everyone should read, no matter what types of books they normally read (Simon Pulse, $6.99). Liyana was born and raised in the United State, where her mother is from, but her parents have always said that at some point the family would move to Palestine, where her father is from. So when she’s 14 and life is just starting to get interesting, Liyana is bummed, but not surprised, to hear that her family is leaving the US. Liyana’s story of growing up, of discovering a new culture, and of feeling caught between her old life and new, caught between the conflicts raging around her in Jerusalem is told with amazing delicacy and thoughtfulness. Embraced by her family, Liyana loves them all as well as their cultural heritage, especially her grandmother, Sitti. Nevertheless, she also knows that their experiences are not her experiences and that their world-views are not her world-views. Therefore when she meets Omar, and he represents everything that threatens her family, she must find the humanity within the conflicts and demonstrate that each individual is bigger than history.
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I’m not sure if Tom Leveen’s Party is even still readily available (Random House, $8.99), which is too bad because this book really impressed me. Each of the 11 chapters is narrated by one high school student, who is either going or perhaps avoiding going to an end of the year party. I’ve said this before, but I’m always a fan of these types of merry-go-round narrative books, when they are done well, and Leveen’s is. Reading various perspectives about the same events is a reminder of how differently we see the world, even when we’re standing right next to each other. Despite it’s seemingly innocuous theme, Party deals with a lot of complex issues: Islamaphobia, losing a parent to cancer, race, and depression. I definitely cried several times, especially in the first and last chapters. But don’t think that this book is all depressing either. There are a few funny moment, a bit of romance, and a reminder that best friends are always there for you, even if they haven’t been there lately. Furthermore, Leveen really magnifies the variety and multiplicity of teen voices. I’d love to see this book get more attention.

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9780547628387Normally, I don’t post reviews on books that aren’t yet available, but I’m going to make an exception here. Yesterday, I discussed Book I in the His Fair Assassins series, Grave Mercy, which tells Ismae’s story. Dark Triumph, which is Book II, overlaps just a bit and we see part of Ismae’s story from Sybella’s point of view (HMH, $17.99). This is an ingenious writing strategy; I was hooked immediately and I enjoyed reading the same scene from two different perspectives. Fast friends, Sybella and Ismae were both novices at the convent of St. Mortain, where they trained as assassins and handmaidens of Death. Dark Triumph is Sybella’s story, and it becomes increasingly apparent that the third novel, Mortal Heart (due 2014), will focus on Annith, a third novice in the convent.

While there are several similarities between Ismae and Sybella — villainous fathers, questioning faith, and romances that develop during journeys across the country side — Sybella has a distinct voice. She is more worldly than Ismae and although Ismae’s body displays the scars of her past life, Sybella’s scars are all internal. As the name suggests, Dark Triumph is darker and in many ways more graphic than Grave Mercy. The subterfuge that Sybella must live is torturous to read about, because of the physical and emotional violence she endures. However, her strength, and eventually her understanding, are admirable. While each book contains its own story and does not end on a cliff hanger, the overarching story of politics, history, and the quest to protect the young duchess of Brittany insure that you will want to start with the first book first, and then will be as anxious as I am to read the final (?) installment. I do feel a certain foreboding, because this can’t end well. We all know what happens to Brittany and France, but I’m certainly starting to appreciate the independent spirit that persists in Brittany today. The series takes advantage of Brittany’s Celtic heritage and introduces a host of interesting old-world gods. Dark Triumph is further engaging because it contains strands of two fairy tales that are closely associated with France. “Blue Beard” was one of nine stories included in Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection, Contes du temps passé (generally known in English as the Tales of Mother Goose). The animal bridegroom story is a familiar motif that is woven throughout literature from the classical period, but appeared under the title “Beauty and the Beast” in a 1740 story by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Vlilleneuve, who was one of the well-known circle of female writers of  fairy tales in 18th century France. Although neither tale overshadows the innovative narrative that LaFevers has created, they demonstrate her engagement with Brittany’s mythology and folklore. Finally, there were a few minor plot points that were unnecessarily repeated from the first book. Nevertheless, I did develop an increasing respect for LaFevers’s writing in this second book. I rescind my apprehensive query about guilty pleasures. These books are good.

If you were looking for such a book there actually is a perfect one out there: soon to be two perfect books and eventually three. Dark Triumph by Robin LaFevers is due in April and is the second book in the His Fair Assassin series. One of the HMH reps talked about it at Winter Institute and I was keen to read it even though I hadn’t read the first book. I read the first chapter of Dark Triumph with a sinking heart, because arg (!) I knew immediately I was going to have to go back and read, Grave Mercy, first (HMH, $9.99). While not necessarily a bad thing, I am on a mission to read through all the ARCs I picked up at Winter Institute. Instead, I’ve spent the past couple of days engrossed in LaFevers’s books and can barely get my brain to concentrate on anything else. These books are page-turners, to be sure. I’m still trying to decide if they are good or guilty-pleasure good. But who cares, because they are good and despite occasional anachronisms LaFevers, has clearly done her research, which I always respect.


In Grave Mercy, Ismae has lived a rather difficult life at the hand of her odious father, who tried to have her expelled from her mother’s womb. He resents that she lived in spite of his efforts. Fortunately this back story is summarized rather quickly and we can move on to the interesting part: when Ismae is transported to the convent of St. Mortain to train as an assassin. Again, LeFevers demonstrates her story telling acumen by giving enough information about Ismae’s time at the convent to provide a flavor of her training and introduce characters who become important in later books, but does not dwell too long on the details of Ismae’s education. Once again the story gets even more interesting when Ismae is sent out on her first assignment. Set in 15th century France, back before it was France, this series is filled with politics, old-world religion, intrigue, adventure, and not a little death. Ismae and the handmaidens of death are sworn to protect the young duchess of Brittany. From whom or what becomes complicated as even the duchess’s closest advisors have their own ideas about the best way to thwart the growing threat of a French invasion, and all the while another threat is already lurking inside the castle walls. Ismae is smart, interesting, and thoughtful. She is caring, but never weak. She is more than what the convent has trained her to be. She is Death’s true daughter.

9781250012579Eleanor & Park (out today!) is a debut YA novel for author Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s Griffin, $18.99) and it’s a good one. Eleanor starts school mid-year. Classes have started, friendships have been made, cliques have formed, and the unofficial bus seating arrangements are fully entrenched. So when she shows up one morning, with wild red hair and rather unusual clothing, there is no space for her, even though there are plenty of seats. Finally Park, happy to keep his head down, tune out the world, and stay off the popular crowd’s radar, does what any reluctant high school hero would do, he angrily gestures towards the empty seat next to him and tells her to sit the fuck down. Thus begins one of the slowest, but extremely satisfying, courtship of two high school misfits.

Eleanor & Park is set in the mid 1980s, and there are tons of fun references to clothing styles, hair styles we’d all like to forget, music and The Latest in technology. Park is half-Korean; he reads comic books and listens to punk music. He does not quite fit in in his small Kansas town. Eleanor is living on the edge of poverty, in an extremely broken home, and keeps to herself, lest anyone should find out about her situation. She does not quite fit in in her small Kansas town. Neither of them feels lovable, and yet after sitting next to each other on the bus day after day, they fall hopelessly, and head over heels, for each other.

The bursts of racism, sexism, and homophobia that pepper this book strike me as particularly realistic for the 80s, but also made me slightly uncomfortable. Probably because they felt all too familiar. I don’t know how current young readers will interpret such comments. Will they understand that the book is portraying a specific era and not endorsing a certain kind of behavior? Will they chalk it up as the ignorance of dark times? Are the 80s really vintage already? Is this book going to be considered ‘Historical Fiction’? Eleanor & Park is a fun read as well as a reminder to stay true and value weird.

9780316122399The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer Smith (Poppy Books, $8.99) isn’t really a Valentine’s Day book. It actually takes place in the summer around the 4th of July. But it’s cheesy and romantic, so I thought it seemed appropriate to recommend it now. When I first saw this book, it struck me as rather cheesy and romantic, but it has been getting such good reviews that I thought for sure it must have more depth than I thought. It doesn’t. It’s super cheesy. But sometimes that’s what you want to read, so I’ll go ahead and recommend it anyway. Haley is on her way to her father’s wedding in London. She doesn’t want to go. She’s never met her step-mother-to-be. She’s still quite angry at her parent’s divorce. And she misses her plane by four minutes. Somehow, while waiting for a later flight, she meets a guy. THE guy, who also happens to be sitting in her row on the plane. They fly across the Atlantic getting to know each other and falling in love. Then they get separated at Immigration (he’s British) and the rest of the novel is spent searching London for that one perfect person you happened to have met on a plane. I told you it was cheesy. But just because I flew back and forth between New York and London at least 3-4 times a year for 7 years and never sat next to one interesting person, let alone someone I could fall in love with in less than 7 hours AND I’ve never met anyone else that ever has either, doesn’t mean it’s statistically impossible : ) It’s a fun book, relatively well-written, with decent characters. Nevertheless, it is over-the-top romance, which, despite (or because of) my protestations of ridiculous romantic commercialism, is why I’m recommending it for Valentine’s Day.

9780142412145Compared to the number of excellent picture books for the holidays available — for examples see this list over at the Youth Literature Reviews — books for older readers and adults are a bit more rare. I also have a difficult finding one that doesn’t inspire an epic eye roll à la Liz Lemon. I picked up Let it Snow by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle (Speak, $9.99) at a bookstore that was not my bookstore back in September. I battled internally about the uselessness of buying a book at a bookstore that is not my bookstore and finally refrained, waited, and ordered it last week (thank you, employee discount). By now, most of you know how I feel about John Green, if not, see this post. I couldn’t not read a book with his name listed among the authors. I had also read one of Lauren Myracle’s books a while back; didn’t love it, but I did admire her for writing a book about teenage lesbian characters in the early 2000s. Maureen Johnson’s books I know, but have not read. Let it Snow is a collection of one story from each author, “The Jubilee Express” by Johnson, “A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle” by Green, and “The Patron Saint of Pigs” by Myracle. Stating without hesitation that Green’s story is the strongest of the three either betrays my bias or his talent. Nevertheless, all three stories, essentially Christmas romances, are enjoyable and they weave together nicely. The overarching connections are a snow store, a stranded train, a small town, minimal parents, and various teenagers who, for living in a small town, lead remarkably interesting lives.

One of my favorite conversations comes from Johnson’s story:

“Stuart’s a wizard with those kinds of things,” she said. 

“What kinds of things?”

“Oh, he can find anything online.”

Debbie was one of those parents who still  hadn’t quite grasped that using the Internet was not exactly wizardry, and that we could all find anything online.”

My one complaint is that although both Green and Myracle — I’m not sure about Johnson having not read her stuff — have included gay and lesbian characters in their other books, there was not even a gay best friend — or at least an out gay best friend — to be found among these holiday love stories. And interestingly, the most relatable female character, meaning relatively gender neutral and not wearing a short skirt in the dead of winter, is in Green’s story. Nevertheless, all three authors write believable characters, who are flawed but intelligent. By the time I read the third story, I wanted to go back and read the first one as small details from each plot infiltrate the other two. All three stories are enjoyable reads and I imagine this was a fun project. I am a fan of co-written books.


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