Book Review: The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith

Lucy and Owen live in the same apartment building in the heart of New York City, but don’t meet until their elevator loses power in a city-wide blackout in the midst of a blisteringly hot summer.  After their rescue, they spend one perfect night together, sharing secrets and falling in love.  Reality sets in before long, and the two are separated.  After that, they mostly communicate through postcards and  a few emails until they finally have a chance to meet up in person again.  Will they be able to rediscover the magic of their first meeting?

In terms of the “meet-cute” trope, this book has it down pat.  Lucy and Owen are fated to meet because of the elevator, and the result of that is a magic, kismet evening in which they discover a mutual attraction for one another.  Readers looking for plausibility should look elsewhere, because Smith’s latest offering has much of what her previous books have: romance, angst, and the most unlikely of situations.  The problem is, that what felt incredibly fresh in her first, excellent The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight is starting to feel more than a little stale in this one, her third offering in as many years.

An inability to connect to either character, both of whom take turns narrating this tale, makes this a bit of slog to get through.  Lucy’s incredibly wealthy and privileged, living in a swank apartment and spending the majority of her time unsupervised, as her parents are always out of the country.  Implausible but not out of the realm of probability, this still feels more like a plot point than an actual feature of Lucy’s character and situation.  Owen’s mother is dead and he grapples with an emotionally absent grieving father, but again, this feels like a plot point rather than a whole character.

Too often, it feels as though Smith is moving the pieces around on the page to keep her characters longing for each other in a way that never fully makes sense.  It would take an extraordinary love–one which this reader did not see on the page–to make these two characters work so hard to stay in touch after they move away from each other.  The base of that relationship is never established, making this feel like a flimsy premise at best.

That’s not to say that readers won’t like this one.  There’s plenty here for readers who like their YA romance chaste and full of longing.  Armchair travelers won’t get a ton out of this one, but there are enough geographical locations mentioned to at least pique the interest of some.  Still, this is one that never fully connects with the reader and fades fast from the memory as soon as it’s done.  Disappointing all around.

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy: 2014. 

Book Review: The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder

Hannah and Zoe are the best of friends, and completely inseparable.  They’ve always been there for one another, so when Zoe tells Hannah that it’s time to leave their po-dunk New Jersey town and see the world, the two embark on a crazy road trip adventure.  Along the way, Zoe tries to teach Hannah about the intangible things in life: like insouciance, audacity, and happiness.

Wendy Wunder’s sophomore novel has high aims and delivers on many of them.  This novel has much of what many readers of contemporary YA look for in their books: romance, independence, self-discovery, and a great deal of wit.  The result is a mixed bag, and while it will work for many readers, it didn’t completely gel for this one.

Because Zoe’s bi-polar disorder plays such a prominent role in the novel, it’s impossible to discuss the novel’s limitations without also touching on that.  Zoe has relied on Hannah to help her down from her episodes, and while it has worked in the past, the two girls find that it is harder and harder to self-medicate when it comes to Zoe’s increasing mania.  Therein lies the biggest issue for this reader when it comes to this book.

Without disputing the fact that bi-polar disorder is a very real thing that some teens face, there was something about the portrayal in this novel that didn’t sit right with this reader.  Too often, Zoe felt like a manic pixie dream girl, and while Wunder did try to showcase the other side of that coin, it felt oddly hollow.  Hannah shoulders a great deal of her best friend’s burden, but something about the story didn’t feel authentic.  Zoe has a support system in place at home, so it seemed odd that that support system would just allow the two girls to go off gallivanting.

So much time and energy is spent on describing Zoe’s zaniness and illness that it feels as though Hannah gets the short shrift often.  Unfortunately, this reader never connected to either character, making this harder to get through.  Lacking that connection to these girls made the stakes feel very low, even though that was clearly not Wunder’s intent.

That being said, the novel is–like her previous work–incredibly well-written.  There are some real gems of insight here, and there is a certain segment of the reading population that will love this one.  Wit and a certain rawness are present throughout the novel.  It just wasn’t enough to sustain the novel to its inevitable (and predictable) conclusion.

Also, the sudden veering into magical realism near the end felt like a way to add some safety netting to the conclusion, which harmed the emotional impact.  Not all readers will feel that way, though.

The Museum of Intangible Things by Wendy Wunder. Razorbill: 2014. 

Book Review: Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy

Alice is diagnosed with leukemia and finally accepts the fact that she’s not going to live a long life.  She convinces her best friend Harvey, who has been in love with her forever, to help her fulfill a bunch of her bucket-list items.  These include things such as revenge on an ex-boyfriend, random acts of kindness, and a bunch of other important life stuff.  But just when she feels like she’s ready to peace out, she gets startling news: she’s in remission.  Her parents are thrilled; Harvey is overjoyed and cautiously hopeful that they can finally be together.  But Alice is at a loss at how to start living like she isn’t dying.  Can she repair the damage she’s done to those around her, and can she even allow herself to be the kind of vulnerable she’ll need to be in order to be with Harvey?

Julie Murphy’s just the latest author to offer readers a book about a teen with cancer, but she takes that trope and turns it on its ear.  Instead of having Alice lament the fact that she’s dying, Murphy jumps forward, for the most part, to where Alice has accepted it and is making peace with her time that’s left.  The result is a prickly, acerbic heroine who isn’t always the most likable of protagonists.  But it works, because Murphy is firmly in control of her characters and the narrative.

The book alternates between narration from Alice and her best friend Harvey.  Both voices work and are distinct enough that readers shouldn’t confuse the two.  However, the narrative demands extra attention because the two of them switch back and forth between the “then” and the “now” of the story, forcing readers to keep two different timelines in their heads.  Because Murphy is a strong enough reader, this largely works.  The fact that the characters are very real and authentic versions of themselves helps further this device.

Alice is a complex character, which is why she works on the page.  If Alice were only a revenge-seeking superbrat, readers would grow tired of her antics very quickly.  She’s not the nicest person, and she recognizes it fully. Her ability to be completely honest with herself elevates her characterization.  She’s kind of the worst, and she knows it–but she’s also dealing with the very real, very looming threat of the cancer coming back at any moment.  This makes everything about her situation all the more raw, moving, and honest.

This one is a stand-out in the cancer book genre (is that a thing?).  Murphy is a talented writer who has crafted very real teens with a narrative worth telling.  Readers will be glued to the book’s hopeful end, wondering what will come next for these incredibly well-rendered characters.  Recommended.

Side Effects May Vary by Julie Murphy. Harper Collins/Balzer + Bray: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Waiting on Wednesday: Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

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:

Everything Leads to You by Nina LaCour

Expected Release Date: May 15, 2014

A love letter to the craft and romance of film and fate in front of—and behind—the camera from the award-winning author of Hold Still.

A wunderkind young set designer, Emi has already started to find her way in the competitive Hollywood film world.

Emi is a film buff and a true romantic, but her real-life relationships are a mess. She has desperately gone back to the same girl too many times to mention. But then a mysterious letter from a silver screen legend leads Emi to Ava. Ava is unlike anyone Emi has ever met. She has a tumultuous, not-so-glamorous past, and lives an unconventional life. She’s enigmatic…. She’s beautiful. And she is about to expand Emi’s understanding of family, acceptance, and true romance.

(Summary via Goodreads)

I didn’t love LaCour’s The Disenchantments, but I definitely understood the appeal and thought that LaCour had that something.  So there was never any doubt that I’d come back to her work at some point.  This offering looks like the perfect place for me to revisit LaCour as an author, because it’s right up my alley: film, Hollywood, coming-of-age.  Sold.  This looks like it has the potential to be a great GLBT novel for the YA world, and will likely have some crossover appeal, too.

What are you waiting on this week?

Waiting on Wednesday: Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

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:

Since You’ve Been Gone by Morgan Matson

Expected Release Date: May 6, 2014

The Pre-Sloane Emily didn’t go to parties, she barely talked to guys, she didn’t do anything crazy. Enter Sloane, social tornado and the best kind of best friend—the one who yanks you out of your shell.But right before what should have been an epic summer, Sloane just… disappears. No note. No calls. No texts. No Sloane. There’s just a random to-do list. On it, thirteen Sloane-selected-definitely-bizarre-tasks that Emily would never try… unless they could lead back to her best friend. Apple Picking at Night? Ok, easy enough.Dance until Dawn? Sure. Why not? Kiss a Stranger? Wait… what?

Getting through Sloane’s list would mean a lot of firsts. But Emily has this whole unexpected summer ahead of her, and the help of Frank Porter (totally unexpected) to check things off. Who knows what she’ll find?

Go Skinny Dipping? Um…

(summary via Goodreads)

This definitely looks like a cute, fun summer read.  I enjoyed Matson’s Second Chance Summer, and despite the sort of generic-looking cover, this one looks interesting enough to pick up.  There’s something about complicated female friendships that hooks me nearly every time, so if this one lives up to its cover blurb, it shouldn’t be any different.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: Goodbye, Rebel Blue by Shelley Coriell

Rebecca “Rebel” Blue is an artsy girl with an attitude on the day she has an interaction with Kennedy Green, a soon-to-be-dead girl.  Rebel decides to complete Kennedy’s bucket list to prove something to herself, but it isn’t long before she starts to realize that the person being fulfilled by these activities is herself.  She opens up slowly to the people around her and to life’s funny coincidences.

Memorable characters help elevate Coriell’s sophomore effort from other novels with the same types of tropes.  Although the novel doesn’t exactly break new ground when it comes to plot, the vivid characters and Rebel’s authentic voice should hook readers.  A fairly tame love interest and even tamer language make this a safe bet for teens of all ages.

Rebel’s voice is authentic, and her pain and disillusionment with the world feel real.  She’s snarky and smart but not living up to her potential, and Coriell plays with that in a realistic way.  The fact that Rebel visibly grows throughout the course of the novel will resonate with readers.  It’s hard not to root for her as she completes items on Kennedy’s list.

Secondary characters help flesh out the story.  Rebel finds herself attracted to a do-gooder named Nate, and their blossoming relationship is predictable but satisfying.  Her growing relationship with her family is well done, as well.

There’s not a lot of new ground here, and I’m not sure that this book has a lot of staying power in reader’s minds, but it’s inspiring enough and well written enough to be recommended to fans of contemporary YA who like their heroines prickly and their journeys bittersweet.

Goodbye, Rebel Blue by Shelley Coriell. Harry N. Abrams: 2013. Electronic galley accepted for review via NetGalley.

 

Waiting on Wednesday: Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

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:

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

Expected Release Date: May 6, 2014

Billie Breslin has traveled far from her California home to take a job at Delicious, the most iconic food magazine in New York and, thus, the world. When the publication is summarily shut down, the colorful staff, who have become an extended family for Billie, must pick up their lives and move on. Not Billie, though. She is offered a new job: staying behind in the magazine’s deserted downtown mansion offices to uphold the “Delicious Guarantee”-a public relations hotline for complaints and recipe inquiries-until further notice. What she doesn’t know is that this boring, lonely job will be the portal to a life-changing discovery.

Delicious! carries the reader to the colorful world of downtown New York restaurateurs and artisanal purveyors, and from the lively food shop in Little Italy where Billie works on weekends to a hidden room in the magazine’s library where she discovers the letters of Lulu Swan, a plucky twelve-year-old, who wrote to the legendary chef James Beard during World War II. Lulu’s letters lead Billie to a deeper understanding of history (and the history of food), but most important, Lulu’s courage in the face of loss inspires Billie to come to terms with her own issues-the panic attacks that occur every time she even thinks about cooking, the truth about the big sister she adored, and her ability to open her heart to love.

(summary via Goodreads)

As someone who loves food but doesn’t read a great deal about it, this might seem like an odd choice.  However, Reichl is a famed food critic, and has several memoirs under her belt.  Her foray into fiction is getting all kinds of great buzz, and I can’t wait to sink my teeth into this one (see what I did there?).  I’m looking forward to something different and fun.  Something adult after tons of YA.  I don’t know.  I’m stoked about this one.

What are you waiting on this week?

Book Review: No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale

Friendship, Wisconsin is your average small town.  Everyone knows everyone, and people are generally friendly.  It’s a safe place until high schooler Ruth Fried is found murdered in a gruesome way in the middle of a cornfield.  What was once a peaceful place is rocked to its core in the aftermath of the murder.  Especially in the case of Kippy Bushman, who was Ruth’s best friend. So imagine her horror when the local police seem content with the first suspect that comes along, despite evidence–including Ruth’s salacious diary–to the contrary.  So it’s up to her to solve her friend’s murder and avenge her death.

Kathleen Hale’s ambitious debut YA novel doesn’t quite reach its goals, but it’s not for lack of trying.  Combining elements of suspense, mystery, and satire, this novel’s aims are high, but it stumbles more often than it soars, to borrow a terribly trite phrase.  Although there’s some genuinely good stuff here–Kippy is a memorable character in all her awkwardness, and some of the secondary characters are diverting–it isn’t enough to keep this novel from getting bogged down in its own plot.

That is, perhaps, the novel’s greatest problem.  The pacing is off throughout this twisty mystery because there’s too much plot thrown in.  An abundance of red herrings can certainly keep readers guessing, but when the plot goes down one dead-ends and side-stories, the result is a slow mess.  In fact, Kippy’s venture into an institution threatens to derail the entire story.  Where was the editor on this?

A skewering of mid-west culture is at times spot on (potluck, bratwurst, etc) and at other times woefully overdone (this reader could have done with far less of the “don’tcha knows”).  Is this Fargo or is this a novel for teens?  At any rate, some readers won’t be tripped up by the stalling plot, but others will just want Kippy to get on with it already.

Disappointing, but it’s clear that the DNA of the story had serious promise.  Hale will be an author to watch.

No One Else Can Have You by Kathleen Hale.  HarperTeen: 2014. Electronic galley accepted for review via Edelweiss.

Book Review: Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg

Macallan and Levi have been friends for practically forever.  Even though everyone claims that a guy and a girl can’t be just friends, these two are out to prove them wrong.  They are just friends, and they share practically everything.  But their close friendship means that they keep tripping the other one up when it comes to matters of the heart.  So are they better of as friends, or are they destined to be together?

Hailed as an homage to the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally, everything about this gimmicky, treacly-sweet novel doesn’t quite hit the mark.  Although there’s plenty of squeaky-clean romance to be found here (parents who want their teens reading the most filtered, scrubbed-sterile fiction will find a friend in this book) that might appeal to younger readers looking for a bubbly, predictable romance, there are better offerings out there.  This one disappoints at every turn, starting with its tenuous-at-best connection to the smart, funny movie it takes its premise from.

Although it isn’t spelled out from the start, it’s clear early on that Macallan and Levi, who narrate the story in alternating chapters from both present and past, are going to end up together.  So, spoiler alert: they aren’t better off friends.  Because it’s so clear, so early on, that these two are going to eventually hook up, there’s no dramatic tension whatsoever to keep the story engaging.  Unfortunately there isn’t any levity to any other parts of the novel to keep it fresh.  Although a couple of more serious issues are touched on, they aren’t given any depth and therefore aren’t impactful.

The book’s issues are myriad, but one that rankled this reviewer was how clean the teens were when it came to pretty much everything, but especially language.  There’s not any swearing in this one, making it helicopter-parent friendly but not very realistic.  At one point, a teen says something about their “rear,” and it’s jarring.  Not all readers will be bothered by this, and in fact some might find comfort in how gentle it is, but it doesn’t make for very resonant reading.

Disappointing, but sure to find an audience somewhere.  Recommend this one to fans of Susane Colasanti and the like.

Better off Friends by Elizabeth Eulberg. Scholastic/Point: 2014. Library copy.

 

Book Review: Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler

Emma has always been the dutiful daughter, tagging along with her academic father as he moves from college to college.  For her, getting to stay in glamorous Los Angeles is almost too good to be true.  When she meets the worldly, glamorous Siobhan, she’s completely taken in by the world in which Siobhan inhabits.  She’s fun and alluring and maybe a little dangerous.  Despite her father’s attempts to derail her social life, Emma gets in deeper and deeper with Siobhan.  As long as Siobhan’s in control, things are fine.  But when Emma starts making her own choices, Siobhan doesn’t seem so secure.  All of it might just explode at Afterparty, the biggest event of the year.

Ann Redisch Stampler’s novel has the glimmery cover telling readers to expect a twisty mystery, but what’s inside its pages is actually much more character-driven than first meets the eye.  There’s a lot here about female friendships and family loyalties and growing up, and readers expecting a fast-paced, dark story about a possible murder might look elsewhere.  But for readers who want to sink their teeth into some characters, this is an excellent choice.

Siobhan is a master manipulator, and it’s easy to see why the sheltered Emma would fall so hard for her friendship.  What Stampler does so well is create a believable, compelling friendship between the two girls.  She manages to illustrate how quickly these bonds can form and how harrowing a relationship like this can be for two young teens.  It’s well done, and it’s done with a lot of care.

The exploration of relationships doesn’t stop there, though: much time and space is given to Emma’s relationship with her controlling father.  His rules about how she will conduct herself only become more strict as she becomes embroiled in Siobhan’s life.  There are other relationships at play here, too: Emma’s romantic relationship with Dylan and her tales of her exploits to her very sheltered friend Megan round out the characters in this cast.

Realistic characters and good dialogue help make this book as compelling as it is–but it felt overly long at times, and is definitely meant for readers who like a good character study over fast-paced action.

Afterparty by Ann Redisch Stampler. Simon Pulse: 2014. ARC provided by publisher for review.