Book Review: The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi

Alex Winchester has enough on her plate in trying to navigate her junior year of high school.  She’s feuding with friends, dealing with a crush that might be something more, and attempting to overcome a crippling fear of getting behind the wheel in driver’s ed.  But then her mom starts acting strangely, and it isn’t long before she’s in a full-blown psychosis where she thinks she’s aviator Amelia Earhart.  As Alex struggles to help her mom while concealing her from other parts of her life, she worries that her mother will go out on Earhart’s final voyage and disappear forever.

Cardi’s thoughtful, authentic novel about a family struggling with the very real effects of mental illness is getting a fair amount of critical praise, and for good reason.  Cardi’s debut could veer into the too-quirky side of things based on the premise alone, but a firm grip on the plot, its characters, and the writing keeps this from ever happening.  The result is a realistic, gripping portrayal of a family in turmoil.

What works especially well is Cardi’s characterization.  Alex is a fully-realized, very flawed teen who uses humor to cope with the huge amount of responsibility she has to shoulder.  Notably, Alex’s younger siblings are also given enough page time to develop as secondary characters, and their evolution as they deal with their mother’s illness is particularly well done.  There’s a lot of exploration of different issues here, including concepts of love, acceptance, and identity.  All of this is woven seamlessly into the narrative.

One of the novel’s only weaker aspects comes in the form of the bantering dialogue between Alex and Jim as they get to know each other.  While it’s meant to be funny and witty, it never quite gets there, perhaps because Cardi is trying so hard to make it so.  But this is so minor a detail it almost feels unnecessary to mention.  The rest of Cardi’s dialogue largely works, and the light romance will satisfy readers who like their realistic tales to have a touch of love in them.

A very strong debut dealing with very real, very hard things.  This is a great example of a contemporary YA novel where the author doesn’t offer her readers nor her characters a neat, tidy ending.  While the novel ends on a hopeful note, it doesn’t sugar-coat anything.  Recommended.

The Chance You Won’t Return by Annie Cardi. Candlewick: 2014.  Electronic galley accepted for review.

Book Review: Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Amy Gumm has never fit in.  Raised in a trailer park by a mother whose struggles with addiction have made her parenting sporadic at best, Amy has had to fend for herself.  So when a tornado hits her trailer and whisks her away to the land of Oz–no, seriously, that Oz–she can’t believe her eyes.  Only, this Oz isn’t like the one in the books.  Here, Dorothy has changed the land and has mined the magic to fulfill her own desires.  Now, the land of Oz is in trouble, and citizens of Oz want Amy to be their chance for freedom.  In order for that to happen, Dorothy must die.

Danielle Paige’s dystopian tale set in the familiar fantasy land of Oz is guaranteed to attract attention.  It’s the time for fractured fairy tales and their ilk, so it’s perfect timing for this novel to hit shelves.  This edgy take on The Wizard of Oz will probably work better for older teens, as it’s quite gory at times.

The problem is that as fun as Paige’s inventions are here in the world of Oz, they’re flashy additions that can’t wholly disguise the fact that there’s nothing new happening.  This is a standard dystopian romance that’s been set in place of a familiar fantasy landscape.  All the well-worn tropes are here, and while it might be fun to see Paige’s re-imagining of the Tin Man or Dorothy herself, at its core, this is kind of a disappointment.

It’s also overly long, despite the fact that once the novel gets going, it keeps going at a good pace.  There are more than a few gaps in the logic of the story and its characters, and this is likely to distract and frustrate readers who pay close enough attention.  The fact that the writing itself isn’t stellar and is at times quite clunky and awkward only adds to the unevenness of the novel.

Overall a disappointment, but it will probably work for fans of fractured fairy tales or fans of shows like Grim or Once Upon a Time.  There will be a sequel, because of course there will.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige. Harper Collins: 2014. Library copy.


Book Review: Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn

Andrew Winston Winters has a monster inside him.  A wolf.  He’s convinced of it, and the full moon is approaching.  Torn between the teen boy he is on the outside–a loner at his Vermont boarding school, shrouded by the ghosts of his terrible past–and the monster he knows he holds on the inside, Win works hard to deal with his demons.  Over the course of one night at a party in the woods, Andrew deals with the painful memories of his past as well as the pain he inflicts on himself now in isolation.

It’s interesting to read Kuehn’s debut shortly after reading her excellent, chilling Complicit.  While both definitely explore some of the same themes, Charm & Strange is more of an experiment in exploring the psychology of someone completely, irrevocably damaged by their past than Kuehn’s sophomore effort.  It’s also a bit more uneven than her follow up, but her strong writing and excellent ability to build tension helps to distract from that.

Told in alternating chapters that tell the story of Andrew’s past with his family in Virginia (anti-matter) and the present at his boarding school (matter), the book pulls no punches when it comes to presenting Andrew as a teen who is dark, haunted, and maybe quite violent.  It’s clear to readers that he has a host of problems and could be diagnosed with a myriad of things, but Kuehn is smart and never labels Andrew’s issues.  The novel is about Andrew’s coming to terms with his past and present.  It’s not about a clinical diagnosis for him.

Kuehn is great at teasing her readers with details about what has happened to Andrew without ever really giving away the details.  This helps build suspense, but it also raises a great deal of questions for readers.  What happened to Andrew’s siblings?  Why is he so damaged?  Is he really a wolf?  Kuehn’s controlled prose makes all of this work much better than it would have in a lesser writer’s hands.

Because the novel flips back and forth in time, there is a little stalling with regards to the plot.  The novel is definitely a slow burn, and that is going to put some readers off of it.  But for those who love a dark contemporary–and make no mistake, this is not a paranormal story in the least–and don’t mind a slow burn of a novel, this is a must-read.

Charm & Strange by Stephanie Kuehn. St. Martin’s Griffin: 2013. Library copy.

Book Review: Made of Stars by Kelley York

Hunter Jackson and his half sister Ashlin have spent most of their summers with their dad.  Their summers were spent with Chance, the strange boy who became both of their friends.  He was enigmatic but shrouded in mystery, and Hunter and Ashlin never really got to know Chance completely.  Now, Ashlin and Hunter are spending the winter with their father for the first time in years.  Chance is there, but things are different now.  As secrets are revealed, the siblings realize why Chance has kept his home life private.  But can they trust anything Chance says or does?

York’s novel is well written and engaging.  The novel’s subtle but authentic portrayal of two boys who fall in love with each other offers a fresh perspective in LGBTQ stories, and the complicated friendship between the three teens is guaranteed to pull many readers in.  This reviewer just wishes she could remember more of the story, since it floated away the second the book finished.

Part of the problem lies in the fact that both Ashlin and Hunter take turns narrating the story but don’t have distinctive enough voices to really differentiate their motivations.  Both of them find Chance totally captivating and fascinating, but the reader is told this much more than shown it.  Hunter describes Chance in a way that will immediately rankle some readers: “Chance was strangeness and whimsy in human form.”

Um, gross.  By setting Chance up as a whimsical enigma, York took the risk of alienating readers who are more suspicious by nature.  The problem is that the reader never gets to know Chance (or Hunter, or Ashlin, really), and as a result, it’s very difficult to connect to any of the characters, let a lone care about what their fates hold.

A bizarre cliffhanger ending will leave many readers scratching their heads about how to interpret the way things end up, while others will wonder if York plans a sequel.  There’s not enough here to satisfy readers, though it’s certainly fairly well written.

Made of Stars by Kelley York. Entangled Teen: 2013. Electronic Galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

Book Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

Georgie McCool knows that things are not great in her marriage to stay-at-home dad Neal.  The two have a pair of amazing daughters, and Neal is an incredible father, but Georgie’s work–writing for a hit television sitcom, and preparing to launch the show she’s been working on for decades with her writing partner, Seth–causes stress between her and Neal.  Two days before they’re supposed to leave for a Christmas visit to Omaha to be with Neal’s family, Georgie backs out to work on the new show.  Neal takes the girls and goes anyway, leaving Georgie alone and wondering if her marriage is over.

But when Georgie calls Neal from the yellow celandine phone in her childhood bedroom at her mother’s house, she realizes that she’s not talking to the Neal of the present.  She’s talking to the Neal of the past.  So what does it mean?  Is she crazy?  Is she supposed to fix something?  And if she is, what exactly is it?

Rainbow Rowell’s second adult novel has all the trappings of what readers expect from Rowell at this ponit: it’s funny, clever, and often very charming.  No one writes a romantic comedy like Rowell, and this novel has many of the author’s trademark witticisms.  But it’s also the weakest of her four novels thus far.  That’s not to say that the novel isn’t enjoyable or that readers won’t devour it, because they will.  But it’s a bit of a letdown for those who have absolutely fallen in love with Rowell’s other books.

But first, the good: Rowell’s examination of a complex, difficult marriage is smart, nuanced, and authentic.  What’s important to note here is that Georgie and Neal love each other but recognize that that might not be enough and that it certainly doesn’t fix their problems.  These are two good people who are trying to work it out but are dealing with personality conflicts and fundamentally different priorities.  The novel is sympathetic to its central couple, but it doesn’t shy away from the fact that they are flawed human beings with different motivations and needs.

There’s also something very smart about Rowell’s touch of magical realism in the novel.  Georgie discovering that she can connect with the Neal of her past via a landline–a communication device that is very nearly obsolete–makes for a compelling metaphor.  This anchor to the past, in some ways very literally, provides Georgie a way to feel both nostalgic and also allows her to do some deep reflection.  But the problem is, the phone works better as a metaphor than as an actual plot point, because readers are treated to a lot (and I do mean A LOT) of repetition of conversations as Georgie and Neal talk.

Which brings this reviewer to the novel’s biggest problems: uneven pacing and disappointing characterization.  What has worked so well in Rowell’s previous novels is her incredible characterization.  Even small, tertiary characters leap off her pages and are fully realized, well-rounded individuals.  Here, that’s not the case.  While Georgie is fairly well drawn (if not more than a little exasperating), Neal isn’t given enough page time to become a fully sympathetic character, and Georgie’s writing partner, Seth, is given even less.  This is particularly troubling because he’s supposed to serve as a major part of the tension in Georgie and Neal’s marriage.  But Seth never becomes more than a one-dimensional needy lech of a dude-bro.

As mentioned before, the novel’s pacing feels off at times, too.  Because Rowell relies so heavily on phone conversations between present-Georgie and past-Neal, the novel feels weirdly padded with conversations that become a slog to get through.  More page time could have been given to characterization or action, and the novel would have picked up its pace considerably.

Even so, it’s still a Rainbow Rowell book.  Readers will be able to consume this novel in one sitting, and it’s still got a lot of humor and heart.  Perhaps it’s a case of raised expectations that lead to a slight letdown with this one.  Some teen crossover appeal, but this one is pretty firmly in the adult camp.

Landline by Rainbow Rowell. St. Martin’s Press: 2014.  Purchased copy.



Book Review: The Fever by Megan Abbott

The town of Dryden is known for its terrible weather and its weird, murky lake.  The Nash family resides in the town: Tom is a teacher at the high school, and his two children, Eli (the hockey star) and Deenie attend the school.  Their somewhat stable lives are thrown into disarray when Deenie’s friend has a terrifying seizure in class.  From there, rumors start to swirl about the affliction.  This escalates when another girl demonstrates some of the same symptoms.  Before long, girls throughout the school have fallen ill with mysterious afflictions.  Gossip and rumors spread like wildfire, and a lack of real answers only make the panic spread faster.

Megan Abbott is getting a lot of press these days.  The Fever, her latest slow-burn of a book, is part of the reason she’s getting all sorts of attention.  It’s attention that she’s earned, because this chilling, smart look at a small town gone crazy is incredibly well done.  This memorable book will have crossover appeal for teens as well as adults.  It’s remarkable.

Much of the credit for why the book works so well should be given to Abbott, who withholds information so expertly that the reader is always just within reach of having enough of the facts to piece the mystery together.  Because the reader doesn’t know what’s actually happening, they’re put right into the thick of the drama with the characters who inhabit the small town.  The suspension ramps up as the questions about what is happening to the teen girls continue to increase.

Is it a bad batch of the HPV vaccine?  Is it an effect from pollutants in the lake?  Is it some sort of sexually transmitted disease?  Who is a carrier?  All of these questions and more propel the story forward.  There’s so much happening here, and it’s all so smart and real that it’s a lot for a reader to unpack.  But that’s what makes the book such a standout: Abbott is in firm control of the narrative and the greater meaning behind what’s happening.  And it works.

There’s a lot happening beneath the surface, and the exploration of the different issues and themes is important and resonant.  There’s stuff here about teen girl friendships, about jealousy, about emerging sexuality.  There’s stuff here about the frustrations of parenting and about the reticence of adults to give agency to teens, especially when those teenagers are female.  This is about the insanity of adolescence, and about the richness and emotional complexity of what it means to come of age in today’s world.

Although it’s not for every reader, it’s certainly for many.  This is brilliant fiction guaranteed to spark discussion.  Read it, read it, read it.

The Fever by Megan Abbott.  Little, Brown: 2014. Library copy.


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.