Book Review: Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins

Isla has had a crush on Josh since their first year of high school at the School of America in Paris.  But she’s pretty sure he doesn’t even know she’s alive until they run into each other at a coffee shop in Manhattan over the summer before their senior year.  That sets in motion things that Isla has only ever dreamed of, and it isn’t long before the two are dating.  Their bliss is short-lived as they encounter resistance from their families, their school, and their own invented problems.

Stephanie Perkins’s much-anticipated conclusion to her romance trilogy offers readers plenty of what the other two titles in the series did: witty dialogue, steamy romance, and insanely privileged teens.  It was also bound to be unable to live up to the hype and anticipation, especially after its delayed release.  While it’s still a perfectly engaging read, it lacks the chemistry of the first novel in the series.

Part of the problem lies with the book’s main characters.  Both Isla and Josh feel woefully short on character development, despite their obvious attraction for each other.  While Isla’s uncertainty about her future feels realistic enough, there isn’t enough development given to other aspects of her character to make her feel like a fully realized person.  The same goes for Josh: apart from his self-obsessed cartooning, there’s not a lot to him.  But they do have undeniable chemistry, and that along with a healthy dose of sex positivity, makes this enjoyable even when the characters feel flat.

It’s interesting to note that the novel’s central conflicts come from within the characters themselves.  Perkins does a nice job of authentically portraying how a person’s own thinking can be their own worst enemy.  These teens in immensely privileged but create their own obstacles that keep them from being together.  Isla’s insecurities and Josh’s self-destructive tendencies create issues that wouldn’t otherwise exist for the duo.

On the whole, the story is predictable but very sweet.  Lackluster character development shouldn’t matter to hardcore Perkins fans, and the character cameos from previous books adds a nice (if a little fan service-y) touch.  A perfectly satisfying light romance.

Isla and the Happily Ever After by Stephanie Perkins. Dutton: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian

Sean Norwhalt thinks his crappy life is turning around when he meets Hallie and they start dating.  But then she leaves for college, and Sean is still stuck in his small town, and he doesn’t know what kind of a future he has, let alone the bright one full of “possibilities” that Hallie keeps talking about.  The only things that are looking okay for Sean are the Marine Corps, which he hasn’t told anyone about, and Neecie Albertson, a girl who wasn’t even on his radar before.

Carrie Mesrobian has done it again in her excellent sophomore effort about a “perfectly good white boy” with serious doubts about his abilities and his future.  As much a character study as a novel can be, this outstanding novel offers an insightful, honest, and achingly real look at a teenage boy.  At times laugh out loud funny and also searingly heartbreaking, this is a standout of a novel, and one of the best of the year.   This is a must-read, must-stock title, not to be missed.

Mesrobian demonstrated her uncanny knack for getting into the heads of teenage boys in her debut, Sex & Violence.  She continues to excel at that talent here, by presenting a teenage boy so authentic in his portrayal that he feels like a real person.  We’ve all known boys like Sean.  Some of the readers are Sean.  He’s smart but unfocused, perceptive but unknowing, and frequently crassly funny.  He’s a good kid who lacks direction.  The result is a memorable character readers can’t help but root for.

The secondary characters work just as well.  Both Hallie and Neecie feel like fully realized people, and they relate to Sean in realistic, sometimes uncomfortably awkward ways.  As Sean navigates his last year of high school, he starts to make realizations about the people around him that feel authentic and natural.  Mesrobian never gives her readers too much information, allowing them to go along on the journey with Sean.

Some readers might get tripped up by the fact that the novel doesn’t have any huge events to knock Sean or the other characters on their asses, but that’s kind of the point. Mesrobian’s book is about a kid who is completely normal, and his life reflects that.  There’s not supposed to be some huge cataclysmic event between the book’s pages, because that’s not something that happens often in life, either.  The result is a measured pace with vivid characters and a moving and satisfying conclusion to the book.

Highly, highly recommended.  One of my favorite titles of the year.

Perfectly Good White Boy by Carrie Mesrobian. Candlewick: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank

Chess is newly sick and isn’t sure what it is.  Stuck in the hospital after a traumatic episode in front of the boy she likes, she’s dealing with intense pain, intense embarrassment, and an uncertain diagnosis.  She’s sharing her room with Shannon, who is her polar opposite: rude, loud, profane, and even sicker than Chess.  The two girls spend enough time with each other to begin a friendship that will help them both through their diagnoses–and start to heal.

Frank’s novel offers an intriguing, unusual look at the chronic pain of Chron’s Disease from the perspectives of two very different girls.  A novel about illness and the way that it interrupts life, this verse novel moves along at a fast pace and offers its readers sparse prose that is mostly engaging and fairly memorable.  A book that will work for readers who don’t want a heavy page count as well as those who devour all things verse novel, this is a realistic look at teens who are shouldering the burden of illness (and for once it isn’t about teens coping with cancer).

The novel’s structure is inventive, with a line separating the two girls’ thoughts running down the middle of the page when the curtain in their shared room is drawn closed.  It isn’t difficult to pick out each girl’s voice, though: they are distinctive.  While it doesn’t feel like this is a novel that had to have been told in verse, the structure doesn’t take anything away from its story.

Overall, this is an incredibly humanizing look at chronic illness, and it remains very authentic to its characters and their struggles.  This should work for readers of contemporary YA, especially those who aren’t looking for a romance and like their topics a little messy (no pun intended).  Recommended, but not essential.

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling by Lucy Frank. Schwartz & Wade: 2014. Library copy.

Waiting on Wednesday: Get Happy by Mary Amato

Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted by Jill at Breaking the Spine.  Its purpose is to spotlight eagerly-anticipated upcoming releases.

This week I’m eagerly awaiting:

Get Happy by Mary Amato

Expected Release Date: October 28, 2014

In this poignant, realistic, contemporary YA by a state master list star, perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen and Gayle Forman, a young songwriter builds a substitute family with her friends in place of the broken family she grew up with.

A hip high school girl who loves music, writes songs, and is desperate for a ukelele, learns to her shock that her father did not abandon her years ago and has been trying to keep in touch. She begins to investigate him, only to discover that he has a new life with a new family, including the perfect stepdaughter, a girl who Minerva despises.

(summary via Goodreads)

This looks like the sort of diversionary contemporary YA I love to read.  It’s got music and family secrets and all sorts of things I like.  I love explorations of choosing your second family, and if it’s done well, I’m sure it will be a moving, memorable novel.  They’re certainly pushing this title as one for fans of some big names, aren’t they?

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Breathe, Annie, Breathe by Miranda Kenneally

Annie has never been a runner.  Now she’s running, trying to ease the pain and guilt she feels about the loss of her boyfriend, Kyle.  If she hadn’t broken up with him, maybe he would still be alive.  To honor his memory, Annie sets out to do what Kyle never got to accomplish: run in the local marathon.  But because she’s not a runner, Annie’s in for some hard truths: there is vomiting, and there is chafing, and there is exhaustion.  As she logs mile after mile, she also deals with the regular parts of growing up and moving on: college, friends, and a new boy who makes her heart race.

Pardon the pun, but with this latest offering, Kenneally hits her stride.  By far the strongest of her offerings for teens, Breathe, Annie, Breathe is a realistic, pleasantly uplifting look at grief and loss and the things that sustain us when life is nearly too hard to bear.  With this novel, Kenneally mixes a coming-of-age story with sports, second chances at love, and much more.  The result is a memorable, incredibly inspiring take on one girl’s quest to get control of her life.

There are several things done well here.  Kenneally allows the story to build up to the circumstances surrounding Kyle’s death in a way that feels natural but allows for a fair amount of suspense.  She also allows the story–and its characters–to speak authentically about the experience of running.  All of the joys and pains of running are present in the story, and readers should identify with some aspect of it, whether they are runners or not.

Additionally, Kenneally writes her characters with realistic, palpable chemistry.  This is especially true of Annie’s burgeoning relationship with daredevil Jeremiah.  Although the start-and-stop approach to their relationship might prove frustrating to some readers who just want to get on with it already, there’s something incredibly realistic about Annie’s reluctance to admit her feelings for someone new in light of her loss.

This is a great contemporary title to add to a collection, and should work for readers who are runners (or readers who aren’t).  Definitely Kenneally’s best so far, and it will work for fans of her previous books as well as attract new fans.  Recommended.

Breathe, Annie, Breathe by Miranda Kenneally. Sourcebooks Fire: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

 

Book Review: Ghosting by Edith Pattou

One summer night in a small midwestern town, teenagers engaged in teenage shenanigans learn life’s hardest lesson.  A prank goes awry when guns, alcohol, and misunderstandings are involved.  All these separate lives converge in one moment, and the result will alter lives forever.

Edith Pattou’s novel-in-verse combines the lives of eight teens with mixed results.  While the verse itself is serviceable, it doesn’t feel essential, which might make some readers question the stylistic choice.  However, the verse makes the story fly by, which should keep readers turning pages.  A compelling narrative becomes more engaging because of the sparse prose.

But that doesn’t mean that the entire novel is compelling.  All of the characters are rather flat in their characterization.  While this is likely to happen with any story that attempts to tell a tale from the perspectives of many people, it does a disservice here because it becomes difficult to keep all the teens straight.

Of course, that won’t matter to some readers.  Pattou keeps the novel clipping along at a good pace, and the sense of foreboding that permeates the novel’s first half will keep readers turning pages to find out what’s going to happen.  It’s a perfectly fine title to add to a contemporary collection, but perhaps not wholly a must-read title.

Ghosting by Edith Pattou. Skyscape: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Netgalley.

Book Review: The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin

Addison Stone was an enigma in life and continues to be one in her death.  Following the mysterious circumstances surrounding her fall (or did she jump? or was she pushed?) from a bridge overpass during an art stunt, writer Adele Griffin tries to make sense of Stone’s life through a collection of interviews with those who knew and loved her, images of Addison’s work, and transcripts of interviews Stone gave when she was alive.

Stone’s experimental novel presents a fictional biography of a rising star in the art world.  It is intricate, layered, and nuanced in a way many other books of its ilk are not.  This is a knockout of a novel and is guaranteed to attract legions of fans.  It’s addictive in its prose and absolutely unputdownable.  The characters–Addison especially–will stay with readers long after they finish the book.

Griffin is an author to watch, always, but this latest offering offers a fresh take on the oral-history genre.  Combining text and images in a seamless, fascinating way, readers are given insight into Addison’s art through the use of many of her paintings and drawings as well as descriptions of them.  It’s a perfect use of mixed-media, and it helps add dimension to a character who might otherwise be accused of being a bit too elusive.

What is especially remarkable here–and there are many things that are indeed quite so–is that Griffin is such a gifted writer that through her other characters, she is able to craft a multi-layered narrative that begs to be examined more closely.  Through others’ recollections of Addison Stone, she not only illustrates the fact that no one truly knew Addison, but also that they don’t fully know themselves.  The ability of Griffin to allow these characters to speak in ways that are authentic but also allow them to project their own fears, hopes, and beliefs on the novel’s narrative is truly masterful.

There are not enough positive things to say about this one.  This is a must-read, one of my favorite books of the year.  It’s going to have enormous crossover appeal for both teens and adults.  It’s one readers will sink their teeth into, and it’s one that will naturally offer up plenty to unpack and talk about.  Read it now.

The Unfinished Life of Addison Stone by Adele Griffin. Soho Teen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.