Book Review: Why Can’t I Be You by Allie Larkin

Jenny Shaw’s boyfriend has just broken up with her and she’s alone in a hotel for a work conference when someone shouts “Jessie!” from across the lobby.  Impulsively, she answers, and ends up pretending to be a girl who seems to be much more fabulous than the real Jenny.  As she gets further embroiled in the lives of strangers, she realizes it’s going to be harder than she thought to extricate herself.

Definitely a rom-com put to paper, this sweet little novel hits all the romantic comedy sweet spots and should have no trouble attracting adoring readers and fans.  While the premise itself is a little far-fetched, especially when one factors in social media, online presences, and the like, it’s easy enough to let some of that go and become enveloped in Larkin’s vivid settings and memorable characters.

Jenny as a narrator is both likable and sort of frustratingly indecisive.  Not every reader will understand why she does what she does in this novel, but her motivations seem authentic enough to make it believable for a character like this to behave in the manner she does.  The novel’s most interesting bits revolve around her friendships with several of the women she meets as “Jessie,” and the ruminations on female friendship are thought-provoking and moving.

Of course, there’s also romance here, but it’s handled with a light touch, which works well in its favor.  As Jenny becomes Jessie to this group of strangers, she finds herself drawn to Fish, a boy who loved the real Jessie all through high school.  What happens next is predictable but ultimately fairly satisfying.  The friendships are what make this novel work.  Witty dialogue and a whip-fast pace make this a page-turner and fast read.  It’s frothy and fun.

Why Can’t I Be You by Allie Larkin. Plume: 2013. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn

Jamie Henry’s sister Cate has been in a juvenile detention center for two years, since the night she burned down a barn with horses and a classmate inside.  The classmate survived (albeit very hurt), the horses did not.  Since then, Jamie has tried to live life as normally as possible, dealing with his own anxiety issues.  But now Cate’s out, and she’s coming for him, telling him it’s time to face the truth.  But Jamie isn’t sure what truth she means.

Kuehn’s latest offering is a gripping, absolutely riveting thrill of a novel.  From the onset, readers will be find Jamie’s narrative compelling, his voice authentic, and the slow-burn of the story absolutely unforgettable.  This is a knockout of a novel, and despite the fact that many readers will extol or lament the ending, the novel as a whole is as strong as can be.  This is not a case where the ending makes the book.  The book makes the book, because it’s really that good.

From the start, readers will know that there’s more to this story than meets the eye.  Jamie is a classic unreliable narrator, and while he has moments of sympathy, he’s also kind of a dick.  All of this works perfectly, and Kuehn’s grasp of the character and his affectations make this a hell of a read.  Readers know that Jamie isn’t telling the whole truth, either because he doesn’t want to or because he literally can’t, but there are clues in the text to help them figure it out alongside Jamie.

A great example of a look at mental illness from inside the mental illness, this book stands apart from others of similar ilk because it’s so exceedingly well done.  Tight pacing, excellent plotting, and a firm grasp on the prose makes this a quick read, but one that demands a second or third, much closer reading.  Readers are going to want to go back and look for clues they missed the first time around.  And they’re going to want to talk about them.  Because this is a book that demands to be discussed.

Absolutely engrossing and horrifying.  Recommended for teens and adults alike.  This will make a great discussion book, and is guaranteed to haunt readers for a good long while.  One of the best of the year.

Complicit by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

Jenn and Greg are happily married and enjoying their annual vacation in Majorca.  After a week spent alone, drinking, swimming, sunbathing, and languorous afternoon sex, the two are joined by Greg’s daughter Emma arrives with her new boyfriend, Nathan.  Their arrival alters the chemistry of the house, and Jenn finds herself drawn to Nathan despite her better judgment.  At the end of the week, nothing will be the same–for any of the four.

This short, sexy novel is being touted as a literary beach read, and that’s probably fairly apropos.  Helen Walsh’s sparse novel takes aim at a woman on the cusp of middle-age who finds herself viscerally drawn to someone completely inappropriate for her in many ways.  Walsh’s writing is sparse but also taut, and while readers will enjoy the crackling tension between Jenn and Nathan–and it is there, no doubt about it–they will also feel the suspense of what could happen if they two get found out.  It’s a book readers won’t be able to put down.

What is commendable is how Walsh doesn’t shy away from the book’s exploration of aging, of lust and love, of the ins and outs of marriage.  Jenn is aware of her own body and her aging, but she also recognizes her own sexuality.  This frankness makes the book all the more compelling, and Jenn’s conflicted feelings about her thoughts and actions all the more intense.  There’s never any doubt that what is happening is wrong, but that’s part of what makes it so exciting.

And there’s never any doubt that everything is going to turn out okay for everyone, which also makes for an interesting read.  The tension throughout the book is expertly done, and the taut narrative makes this a page-turner of the highest order.  This reviewer blew through this in one sitting, and weeks later is still thinking about the characters.

Perhaps the book’s only downfall is that the characters aren’t fully developed.  Nathan and Greg sometimes feel like props for Jenn’s thoughts and actions, and while her relationship with Emma has some nuance, she falls a little flat.  Even Jenn, whom readers spend so much time with, has limitations in terms of development.  Readers are given no sense of who she is outside of this vacation, making her actions seem all the more wild.  But that might also be Walsh’s point: vacation makes people do crazy, stupid things.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh. Doubleday: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Tease by Amanda Maciel

When Emma Putnam commits suicide, a community is up in arms.  Everyone seems to think that it’s the fault of several teens who bullied Emma relentlessly.  Sara Wharton is one of those teens.  Along with her best friend Brielle and a few other classmates, the group is awaiting trial for their role in the death of the sixteen-year-old.  Completely ostracized from everyone in town and ordered to stay away from Brielle, Sara reflects on what has happened in the days leading up to the trial.

Amanda Maciel’s ambitious debut succeeds on a lot of levels.  Creating a story and characters loosely based on real events, she crafts a novel that is achingly real, ultimately heartbreaking, and pretty unforgettable.  By choosing to have Sara, one of the bullies, narrate the story, Maciel’s approach to the subject matter is different than many other authors.  It’s a risk, because there are many readers out there who won’t like Sara.

And while that shouldn’t matter, because since WHEN do readers have to “like” the narrator, it will to some.  But what Maciel does is elevate Sara from a stock character and make her a deeply flawed protagonist who is also very real.  For the most part, at least.  Both Sara and the character of Carmichael are fairly well done, as are brief moments with Sara’s family–in particular, her younger brothers.

Less successful characters include Brielle, who is clearly supposed to be the Queen Bee Mean Girl.  While there’s a moment or two where Maciel hints at something underneath Brielle’s surface, it feels like too little to get on board with her.

There’s lots of stuff for readers to chew on and discuss here.  Not merely about issues like bullying and suicide, the book raises questions about who is complicit when a suicide like this occurs, what other factors play into something this horrific, and how one can move on after something like this happens.  Readers are going to want to talk about this one, and it will be great for discussion.

Which is why it’s so disappointing when Maciel’s ending makes everything a little too convenient, too easy, and more than a little inauthentic.  It undermines all of the groundwork that Maciel worked so hard to put in place.  It’s too bad, because it takes what could have been a knockout of a book to one that is merely pretty good.

Tease by Amanda Maciel. Balzer & Bray: 2014. ILL’d through library.

Book Review: Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris

Midnight, Texas is a tiny little town with very few residents.  The town’s only intersection hosts a diner, a pawn shop, a gas station, and a minuscule chapel.  People pass through, but they don’t tend to stay overly long.  The town’s residents make up an interesting lot, and they have their share of secrets.  But the unspoken rule in Midnight is that you don’t ask questions.  So when a body is found, the tiny town’s world is thrown into an investigation they never asked for.

Charlaine Harris operates firmly within her wheelhouse with this novel, the start of a new trilogy.  Full of vivid, memorable characters Harris is known for creating, this novel clips along at a good pace, full of the minutiae of small-town southern life fans of her work so crave.  Part supernatural tale (the supernatural aspects here are present but much more toned down than in her most popular Sookie Stackhouse series) and part whodunnit mystery, this is likely to gain traction with old fans as well as collect new ones.

The book starts off slightly rocky, with a present-tense narration that doesn’t seem to quite work. However, after a chapter or two, the reader settles into the narrative of the novel.  The chapters are short and alternate from the perspectives of several of Midnight’s residents.  There’s Fiji, the witch who runs a little magic shop and pines for Bobo, the owner of Midnight’s pawn shop.  Manfred is the town’s newest resident, and he operates an online psychic business from his little apartment (hardcore fans of Harris’s work will recognize him from her Harper Connelly mysteries).  All of the characters have their own pasts and their own motivations, and Harris hints at these events without judgment.

Also notable is how diversely Harris has cast her new series.  There are several people of color in Midnight, as well as a gay couple who is very well accepted into the town.  Harris weaves these details in seamlessly, and while characters have these traits, they do not define them.  It’s refreshing to see this kind of diversity without it being the central point of the novel.

Mostly fun and definitely a strong addition to the genre, this is a book that is likely to circulate well at libraries.  Recommended for fans of Harris’s work, and for fans of small-town mysteries in general.

Midnight Crossroad by Charlaine Harris.  Ace Books: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Tabitha’s friends think she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her like a bad habit.  Tab isn’t exactly sure how she’s changed, except that her boobs got bigger and she started to get attention from dudes.  Lonely, Tab seeks solace in carrying on a secret relationship with Joe, who already has a very public girlfriend.  Then she stumbles upon an online community called Life By Committee.  There, members spill secrets and complete Assignments.  As the Assignments raise the stakes, Tab wonders if she’s going too far.

Haydu is an author to watch.  She proved that with her debut, OCD Love Story, and she does it here again, creating a fully-realized female protagonist who makes mistakes, feels authentic, and is absolutely memorable.  Although the ending might feel a little too convenient for some readers, this is still an ultimately satisfying–and completely riveting–story about growing up.

What works here is how deeply Tabitha becomes entrenched in her feelings about everything happening in her life.  She’s lonely, and she’s really attracted to Joe, the boy who already has a manic-pixie-dream-girl girlfriend, so when he spills his secrets to her during online chats, she wants their thing to be the Real Deal.  But he isn’t totally present for her, and her parents are dealing with a new baby on the way and her dad’s chronic pot-smoking tendencies, so even though they seem like good parents, they aren’t totally there, either.  Because of this, her discovering an online community in which she can spill her secrets and feel connected to other people at the same time makes total sense.  It’s easy to see how this becomes her distraction from her life’s problems.

The novel really takes off once Tab becomes enmeshed in LBC.  There’s a lot of great stuff to talk about with other readers here, including how social media plays a role in our lives, how things like spilling secrets to strangers rather than friends can be so alluring, and how far is too far when it comes to taking on a dare or a challenge to live life.  Haydu isn’t afraid to make things uncomfortable for her characters or the readers, and the book is all the more authentic for it.  It can be hard, at times, to watch Tabitha make increasingly poor choices, but it never feels forced.

While some might think that the novel’s climax is a bit too much (like, straight out of a movie, too much), others will devour it.  The one faltering step here isn’t enough to keep this book from packing a serious punch.  Highly recommended–this one will stimulate discussion.

Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu. Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs

Gloria is spending her entire summer before her senior year at a camp for gifted and talented kids.  She’s not sure what to expect, but she’s pretty excited, and is looking forward to a summer of learning and distractions from the recent loss of her beloved grandmother.  What Gloria ends up experiencing is more than she could ever have imagined.  Between the mysterious clues her technophobic Professor X leaves for the students to a new group of forever friends, Gloria is in for a summer she’ll never forget.

This sweet, mostly thoughtful debut novel by Sarah Combs will hit a sweet spot for some readers.  Earnest and uneven (sometimes distractingly so), this novel hints at Combs’s talents but doesn’t fully realize them.  That being said, it’s likely to find an audience all the same.

Part of the novel’s charm is in its prose.  Combs fills her novel with memorable, pretty prose.  The novel is as much a love story to the state of Kentucky as it is a coming-of-age tale for Gloria.  These bits are standouts, and readers who love a good sentence are likely to be wooed by these descriptive bits.  There’s a lot of southern charm here, and this might even be more of a hit depending on the geographic location of the reader.

But there are parts that don’t work, too.  Combs’s packs her novel so full of issues that it feels daunting and overwhelming. At times, there are too many issues on the plate: racism, death, sexuality, family, religion, etc.  All of this overwhelms the things that work–the exploration of new friendships, the bottle-effect a sleep-away camp can have on its inhabitants, etc.

Also frustrating is Gloria’s characterization, which can feel uneven at times.  Although it’s clear that Combs means for Gloria to be judgmental, she’s so over-the-top judgmental and immature at times that it’s hard to reconcile those aspects of her personality with her more mature ones (her extensive bibliography of classic literature references, for one).  While this reader realizes that most humans have this kind of complexity, it often doesn’t feel intentional so much as choppy.

That being said, there’s a readership for this one, and Combs is an author to watch.  Her prose alone makes sure of that.

Breakfast Served Anytime by Sarah Combs.  Candlewick: 2014. Library copy.

Mini Reviews of (non-YA) Books I’ve Been Reading

In my unscientific analysis, I’ve read more adult novels in the past 6 months or so than in many, many years.  I don’t always feel like reviewing them fully (this might change, as I really am running out of YA novels to review here), but I do like talking about them sometimes.  Here are a couple good-to-great ones I’ve read lately.

Watch How We Walk by Jennifer Lovegrove

Narrated by a young girl and then also her older self, this novel follows the interpersonal dramas of a devout Jehovah’s Witness family as they deal with an overbearing father, an increasingly checked-out-of-the-faith mother, and an older sister who has entered her rebellious teenage years.   It is sparsely written, very compelling, and has a haunting feel to it throughout.  It is an incredibly sad story with very little hope in it.  There’s mental illness at play, as well as the questioning of faith, the questioning of self, and much more in between.

This is definitely an adult fiction title, but there might be some teen appeal here, especially for savvy, sophisticated readers who like their endings depressing and ambiguous.

 

(ECW Press, 2013, Library Copy)

Mother, Mother by Koren Zailckas 

This one was read for book club and was actually my pick for the month.  I’m not saying there’s a trend here, but this one is also about a family where the mother (who is maybe an undiagnosed case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder) has wreaked havoc on her three children’s lives.  Rose, the eldest, ran away, Violet comes down off a bad trip to find herself committed, and Will, the youngest, is home schooled and fully under his mother’s spell.  It’s a hell of a ride, and it’s nearly impossible to put the book down once it gets going.  Although the ending might be a bit melodramatic for some readers, it’s definitely an engaging and fascinating read.

It was the most well-received book our book club has read.  That’s a point of pride for me (the librarian in the group).

(Crown, 2013, Library Copy)

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Arguably the best of the bunch in this post, this searing novel by Roxane Gay (it’s getting a lot of press/good buzz, and deservedly so) is narrated by a Haitian-American woman who gets kidnapped in Haiti by a group of men who extort her wealthy father for ransom.  Instead of paying the ransom immediately, she is held for nearly two weeks.  This is the story of her before and after, and it is not for the faint of heart.  But it is beautifully written, beautifully rendered, and absolutely unforgettable.  Excellent.

It is purely excellent.

(Grove Press, 2014, Library Copy)

Book Review: Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff

A guy and a girl collide–quite physically–at 2:30am in the streets of St. Paul, Minnesota.  Lesh wears black, likes metal and videogames.  Svetlana is a crafter who embroiders things, listens to music that is best described as quirky, and is into RPGs.  The two should theoretically never speak to one another again, but that’s not what happens.  Once they’re in each other’s lives, they’re in them.  The two start talking at school, and it isn’t long before they realize that there’s something real between them, awkward as it may be.

In terms of books about awkward teens, this one is very real, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree.  Brezenoff’s latest offering pulls no punches in letting readers know that these teens are totally real–and totally awkward.  Try to ignore comparisons to some of the big names this novel is being compared to, because this is a story all its own.

What’s great about Brezenoff’s novel is that the book works on multiple levels, and it’s up to the reader to decide which one(s) to focus on.  There’s tons here for readers to take a look at: ruminations about MMORPGs, gaming, geekdom, self-identity, growing up, falling in love, etc.  All of it is handled with care, understanding, and total respect for the characters.

It’s also really funny.  Brezenoff’s ability to get into the heads of both characters (Lesh and Svetlana take turns narrating the book, and both are distinctive and wonderful) makes them all the more real for readers.  They both have flaws but remain inherently likable, and it’s likely that readers will root for their romance.  Props to Brezenoff for never allowing the romance to overpower the rest of the story, nor letting it become overly-saccharine.

At times, the gamer-speak can be a little wearying, especially for readers who aren’t enmeshed in the world(s) of gaming and RPGs, but it never completely overtakes the narrative.  There’s some interesting stuff here about gender politics and gaming, but it takes a backseat to the characters and their stories, which is pretty much perfect.

This is a great read for fans of contemporary YA who like their teens real, a little awkward, and a lot geeky.  Recommended.

Guy in Real Life by Steve Brezenoff.  Balzer + Bray: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review.

Book Review: Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern

Amy was born with cerebral palsy and can’t walk without a walker or talk without a computer voice box.  She can’t even completely control her facial expressions.  All of these things have largely alienated her from her peers.  When she decides to hire student helpers for her last year of high school, her mother is reluctant, but Amy is persistent.  She wants Matthew, a student at the school who is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to be one of her helpers.  As the two become enmeshed in each other’s lives, a deep friendship forms, and the two of them wonder if they could ever be more.

Let’s get this out of the way: Cammie McGovern’s debut is garnering comparisons to John Green and Rainbow Rowell, but this is a novel that doesn’t need those comparisons.  This one stands well enough on its own.  Comparisons like that only do it a disservice, and may actually alienate readers who might otherwise read and love it.  McGovern’s debut is smart, heartfelt, and absolutely original.  One of the best books of the year, this is a must-read for fans of contemporary YA.

Both Amy and Matthew are remarkably well-drawn characters.  Amy is smart, funny, and fiercely independence, despite the physical limitations imposed on her body.  Her realization that she’s been kept at a distance from her peers for the entirety of her schooling forces her to confront the fact that she needs to learn how to relate to people her own age, and her attempts to do so feeling achingly authentic.

Matthew’s obsessive-compulsive disorder is also sensitively written, and his personality as a kid who cares but lacks direction feels very realistic.  The two have an immense chemistry that leaps off the page, and their rapport is guaranteed to hook readers early on.  Neither character is defined by their diagnosis, and this means that the characters are full, real people.  What McGovern does so well is create real suspense between the two characters as they tentatively search out what their relationship could mean.

The normalization of each character’s disability makes this book a standout when it comes to inclusion lit.  The romance, the wit, and the excellent characterization of the book’s leads make this one a must-have for the summer.  Although the book is slightly over-plotted and some of the secondary characters could be fleshed out a bit more, these are easy nitpicks to overlook.  Buy this one.  Highly recommended.
Say What You Will by Cammie McGovern. HarperTeen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.