Book Review: Falling into Place by Amy Zhang

Liz Emerson decides to die and crashes her Mercedes into a tree.  In the hospital, in limbo, those who know her wait to find out her fate.  Skipping around in time and perspective, this tale is about Liz, but it’s also about the people she’s impacted–in good and bad ways.

This book, by debut author (and teenager) Amy Zhang, has received a fair amount of buzz, not only for its unusual execution but for its author’s noteworthy young age.  While the book’s premise is a novel one, the execution doesn’t live up to the promise.  Flat characters, overly earnest and oftentimes clunky prose make this novel fall short of its rather lofty ambitions.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t things here worth examining.  Zhang displays promise as a writer, even though the prose here borders on overtly didactic at times, and she certainly has an interesting take on how the novel gets narrated.  The decision to have the book jump around in time makes for a more interesting read than if it was strictly chronological, and Zhang’s decision to make Liz Emerson a very flawed, kind of generally awful person makes for a much more nuanced read.  She’s definitely an author to watch.

The problem is that the book’s unique narrator (Liz’s childhood imaginary friend) and a non-chronological plot can’t sustain the uneven writing and the otherwise flat secondary characters.  The book’s abrupt ending doesn’t help things, either.  This is likely to find readers who enjoy books like Gayle Forman’s If I Stay or Jay Asher’s 13 Reasons Why, as it’s similar in theme and concept, but Zhang isn’t quite there yet as a writer.

Falling into Place by Amy Zhang. Greenwillow Books: 2014. Library copy.

Book Review: When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds

Ali lives in Bed Stuy, New York, and he’s trying hard to be a good kid.  He works hard in school and takes boxing lessons and generally stays out of trouble.  His best friend, nicknamed Noodles, isn’t trying so hard to be good.  But Ali is always around to help get him out of trouble.  It’s what you do: look out for your friends.  But then Ali and Noodles, along with his brother Needles, find themselves in a situation that gets real, really fast.  And there might be some serious–and lasting–repercussions.

Jason Reynolds’s debut novel about a witty, smart teen living in a rough neighborhood in Brooklyn should be on readers’ radars.  Although it’s more character-driven than plot-focused, the novel features incredibly memorable characters and authentic voices that are guaranteed to hook readers young and old alike.  This will work for teens looking for urban fiction, but it should also appeal to readers outside the genre.

Ali’s voice makes the novel.  All of the characters are well-drawn and tenderly nuanced, but Ali, as the narrator, sticks out.  He’s smart and kind and wants to succeed.  He loves his family and his friends and recognizes the dangers his neighborhood poses to him and to Noodles.  He’s also just a teenager–and teenagers make mistakes.  All of this feels incredibly realistic, lending an authenticity to the narrative.

The book isn’t long on plot, but what is present is compelling stuff.  It’s clear that Reynolds is much more invested in the characters he’s created here than he is in creating a ridiculously over-the-top plot where the action overtakes the narrative and the character’s actions.  It might be a bit slow for some readers, but most should find themselves drawn to these excellent, memorable characters.  Recommended.

When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds.  Atheneum Books for Young Readers: 2014. ILL copy from library.

Waiting on Wednesday: Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass

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:

Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass

Expected Release Date: December 31, 2014

If you want more, you have to give less.

That’s the secret to dating in high school. By giving as little as they expect to get in return, seventeen-year-old Aubrey Housing and her three best friends have made it to the second semester of their senior year heartbreak-free. And it’s all thanks to a few simple rules: don’t commit, don’t be needy, and don’t give away your heart.

So when smoking-hot Nathan Diggs transfers to Lincoln High, it shouldn’t be a big deal. At least that’s what Aubrey tells herself. But Nathan’s new-boy charm, his kindness, and his disarming honesty throw Aubrey off her game and put her in danger of breaking the most important rule of all: Don’t fall in love.

(summary via Goodreads)

I’m not sure that there’s anything new here exactly, but it looks like it might be a fun little romance to ring in the new year.  Early reviews are mixed (there seems to be a fair amount of people who are wringing their hands over the fact that the protagonist isn’t super likable, which, sign me up, because that is real life) but it’s got a good cover and a catchy little summary.

What are you waiting on this week?

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?