Book Review: The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone

TheLooseEndsList

The Loose Ends List by Carrie Firestone. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. 352 pp. 

Seventeen-year-old Maddie O’Neill Levine lives a charmed life, and is primed to spend the perfect pre-college summer with her best friends and young-at-heart socialite grandmother (also Maddie’s closest confidante), tying up high school loose ends. Maddie’s plans change the instant Gram announces that she is terminally ill and has booked the family on a secret “death with dignity” cruise ship so that she can leave the world in her own unconventional way – and give the O’Neill clan an unforgettable summer of dreams-come-true in the process.

Soon, Maddie is on the trip of a lifetime with her over-the-top family. As they travel the globe, Maddie bonds with other passengers and falls for Enzo, who is processing his own grief. But despite the laughter, headiness of first love, and excitement of glamorous destinations, Maddie knows she is on the brink of losing Gram. She struggles to find the strength to say good-bye in a whirlwind summer shaped by love, loss, and the power of forgiveness.

Let’s start by talking about the NOVL newsletter, shall we? Not only are the folks at NOVL as ecstatic about books as I am — mayyybe even more so — they give away advance copies of books on a regular basis. There’s an entry form in the newsletter, and if you’re selected, you don’t get an email to notify you: a book shows up, out of the blue, at your door. This is the best. surprise. ever. I’m not one for unexpected company of the human variety, but if a book shows up at my door it will be welcomed with open arms.

It’s always a nice surprise to receive a free book, but it’s oh-so-much better when said book is good. And The Loose Ends List is better than good. It’s beautiful and fierce and heartbreaking.

The way that Maddie and her family joke, fight, and have the time of their lives together made me miss my cousins and how much time we spent together when we were kids. People move and life gets in the way, and all of a sudden the people you love so much become a thought bobbing in your brain: I wonder how she’s doing. I should really call her. And we (at least, I) never make the time. I admired Maddie’s grandmother for her desire to have the whole family together one last time, and I was envious of them all for having that opportunity.

Maddie’s relationship with her grandmother is touching: respectful yet irreverent, and so full of love. My mom is my best friend, and I can’t (don’t want to) imagine saying goodbye to her. I can’t imagine dragging a goodbye out for an entire summer, not knowing when it was gong to happen. I thought Maddie’s grief was portrayed well and realistically; she tries to distract herself from it for as long as possible, then it all comes slamming down.

Because all of the other patients on the ship are also terminal cases, I knew I was going to have to say goodbye to them all, but I still wasn’t ready when it started to happen. I was a mess for the last fifty pages or so of this book, and though I was sad, I was also moved to make every moment count with the people I love. The ship’s motto, “And still we dance,” captures this book in a neat four-word package that brings so many snapshots and “snow globe moments” to mind. The characters in this book aren’t perfect, but they are alive — practically leaping off the page — and they will worm their way into your heart.

All in all: A gorgeous book. Worth reading…then re-reading when you start to take life (and people) for granted.

Review: Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom

NotIfISeeYouFirst

Not If I See You First by Eric Lindstrom. Poppy. 320 pp.

Parker Grant doesn’t need 20/20 vision to see right through you. That’s why she created the Rules: Don’t treat her any differently just because she’s blind, and never take advantage. There will be no second chances. Just ask Scott Kilpatrick, the boy who broke her heart.

When Scott suddenly reappears in her life after being gone for years, Parker knows there’s only one way to react-shun him so hard it hurts. She has enough on her mind already, like trying out for the track team (that’s right, her eyes don’t work but her legs still do), doling out tough-love advice to her painfully naive classmates, and giving herself gold stars for every day she hasn’t cried since her dad’s death three months ago. But avoiding her past quickly proves impossible, and the more Parker learns about what really happened–both with Scott, and her dad–the more she starts to question if things are always as they seem. Maybe, just maybe, some Rules are meant to be broken.

I was super excited to get a copy of Not If I See You First from Novl. I’d never read a work with a blind protagonist — actually, now that I think about it, the only thing I can even think of with a blind character is The Diviners. I enjoy reading about people from all walks of life for selfish reasons (I feel like getting glimpses into as many lives as possible helps me develop empathy and understanding for people who are different than I am) but also for selfless reasons: it makes me so happy to think that there’s one less person going unrepresented in literature. As much as I love reading about situations outside of my realm of experience, it makes me feel less lonely to read about characters like me. I think it’s important to have both, and I’m happy to see a book like this on shelves.

I didn’t just like this book because some of the content was new to me, though. It’s a remarkable book overall. It’s well written, the characters are flawed yet likable, and it’s bursting at the seams with heart.

I was curious about how the author would narrate action, especially since Parker spends her life in one hundred per cent darkness. But I learned two things simultaneously: 1) how challenging and world-rocking it would be for me to adjust to life without vision the way Parker did and 2) how aware Parker was of her surroundings and how self-sufficient she’d grown to be. The narrative focuses on sounds; Parker often narrates by saying that she hears someone sitting on her left, or walking out the door, or something like that. I didn’t feel like the storytelling suffered because a sense was removed; instead, I was forced to focus on things I might normally take for granted, like breathing, pauses in conversation, and tone of voice. It’s a very internal novel — it’s told in first person, and the reader hears a lot of Parker’s fears and insecurities — but it’s also highly interpersonal as Parker spends a lot of her time trying to figure out her place, both socially and romantically.

When I read the blurb, I wondered what Scott could have done that would make Parker willing to write him off forever. I don’t want to tell you, because it’s better if it comes as a surprise, but it’s a doozy. And then to have him show up at her school, and to have to navigate a life in which she’s forced to be around him every day…it’s a lot to deal with, especially after just losing her father. I loved reading about Scott and Parker’s relationship as kids, and I loved the situations in which they were thrown together as teens. All in all, I just loved the two of them. Their story is beautiful.

But this book isn’t just about their story; it’s primarily about Parker’s story, and I love that. Too often, a book is so focused on boy-girl issues that there aren’t enough pages left for the girl to have a life of her own. Eric Lindstrom balances the two beautifully. And he leaves enough room for female friendship! Parker’s relationship with Sarah is portrayed brilliantly: devotion and insecurity on both sides, and so much love it’s heartwarming to read.

All in all: Writing this review made me want to re-read the book, and that’s always a good sign. Worth reading.

ARC Review: What We Left Behind by Robin Talley

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley. Harlequin Teen. 416 pp.

What We Left Behind by Robin Talley. Harlequin Teen. 416 pp.

Toni and Gretchen have been together for nearly two years by the time they leave for separate colleges, and their relationship has always been strong. However, as Toni begins to delve deeper into the trans community and explore what it means to identify as genderqueer, Gretchen feels as though Toni is moving in a direction that she can’t follow. Both teens strive to understand their own places in the world and how they fit together, while also grappling with the universal struggles that every college freshman faces as they move into a new phase of their lives.

Told in Toni and Gretchen’s alternating points-of-view and populated with a diverse cast of supporting characters, What We Left Behind gives voice to a range of experiences that so often go silenced or ignored. At a time when these issues are in the national spotlight, this compelling story is a powerful starting point for discussion, exploration, and empathy.

When I received a request to review this book, I said yes immediately. There have been a lot of releases dealing with gender identity lately, and I’m thrilled to see this, because I think transgender (or gender neutral, questioning, etc.) individuals have been sorely underrepresented in literature until now. I’m glad that, between more people coming out and more stories being told, my sons will grow up in a world where people who fall outside the gender binary are not a foreign concept. I can’t claim to know everything there is to know about gender identity, but I’ve had the fortune to read many narratives lately that are a start at opening my eyes. [Note: If I use a term or pronoun incorrectly, please forgive me. I’m still learning.]

Okay. Enough background. Let’s talk about this book. This beautiful, unputdownable book.

Gretchen and Toni are wonderfully written characters; they are memorable and vibrant, imperfect and alive. I could easily picture them and understand their actions, but at the same time, I didn’t always know what they were going to do. You know, like real people. Too many books can’t accomplish this; characters are either too predictable or too unrealistic. But the characters in this book (major and minor — I’m looking at you, Carroll) are brilliantly flawed and a joy to read. It’s rare to be able to truly say that characters “jump off the page,” but in this book, they do.

Toni’s gender identity is, of course, a huge focus in the book, but Robin Talley weaves so many other elements into the story that it doesn’t feel preachy or thematically one-sided. Again, just like a real person, Toni has other problems and concerns while adjusting to life at Harvard, and dealing with those in addition to choosing pronouns and maintaining a long-distance relationship starts to take its toll.

I didn’t like Gretchen as much at first. I felt like she was a sort of necessary evil, included only to show where Toni had come from. But as the book progressed, I enjoyed her journey more and more. It’s difficult to be in a relationship where you don’t feel like a priority, and Gretchen’s choice to go to college in the city of her choice — and to pursue her own path — was admirable, albeit painful.

Also, the cover is perfect. The ARC I received doesn’t have the final cover art, so I didn’t see the cover image until after I’d already finished the book. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that before; I always see the cover first and base my initial expectations for the story off of that. (Yes, I know…”Don’t judge blah blah blah”…but I do.) And this cover, with its nostalgic, “this-is-the-block-where-I-spent-my-childhood” feel, is exactly right. (I also love the fact that it’s not immediately clear whether the sun is rising or setting.)

All in all: I loved this book. I have a place in my heart for the two main characters, and since I finished the book last week, I’ve found myself thinking of Toni multiple times, in the way an old friend crosses your mind and you wonder vaguely how he’s been. There aren’t many characters that my brain has latched on to in that way, so, combined with the other excellently-portrayed characters and themes, I’d consider this book a success. Read it.

Review: Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy. 256 pp.

Hello, Goodbye, and Everything In Between by Jennifer E. Smith. Poppy. 256 pp.

On the night before they leave for college, Clare and Aidan only have one thing left to do: figure out whether they should stay together or break up. Over the course of twelve hours, they’ll retrace the steps of their relationship, trying to find something in their past that might help them decide what their future should be. The night will lead them to friends and family, familiar landmarks and unexpected places, hard truths and surprising revelations. But as the clock winds down and morning approaches, so does their inevitable goodbye. The question is, will it be goodbye for now or goodbye forever?

Acquiring this book was a sort of fortunate accident: Jennifer E. Smith was signing at BEA, and her line was short when I walked by. I’d been seeing her covers online for a while, and they looked just cutesy and quirky enough to catch my eye. I figured this would be the perfect way to give her a shot: no financial investment, no time constraints involved with borrowing from the library, you know? I didn’t have anything to say when I met her since I’d never read one of her books before, but she was very polite, going so far as to thank me for coming (authors really are a gracious bunch most of the time!).

I’m sorry to say, though, that this book did just about nothing for me. The writing is painfully simple and the characters are barely-developed. I almost gave up halfway through, but kept reading out of curiosity, just to see if it would get better or more interesting…and the best I can say is that it’s an easy read, so it didn’t take me very long, and I didn’t waste much time on it. I feel terrible for not having anything nice to say, but if I only reviewed books that I liked, this blog would be terribly one-sided. Also, you’d have no idea where my tastes fall, so you wouldn’t know whether or not to consider a book that I adored.

I think there’s a target audience for this book and I’m just not it. People who like simple, easy love stories will probably enjoy this. I think it would also be good as a “Hi-Lo” book (high interest level, low reading level) because it features characters freshly out of high school but is written at maybe a late-middle-school level. I think there are benefits to books like this one, just not for me. (I hope that makes sense.)

All in all: Not my cup of tea, but if I were still teaching high school, I’d recommend it to a certain type of student. It could be useful to boost confidence in someone who struggles with reading.

Review: Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Delacorte Press. 320 pp.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon. Delacorte Press. 320 pp.

I’m still upset about the fact that Pushing Daisies was cancelled. I thought it was a fun show, whimsically clever, but mostly I was intrigued by the idea of a love story in which the two lovers could never come into physical contact — upon penalty of death. I’m sad that the show never had a chance to really build momentum and viewership (the writers’ strike took place early in its first season) because I had never seen anything like it before and was enthralled. It still drives me crazy not to know where the writers were going to go with things. When I read the description of Everything, Everything, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. I mean, a book about a couple who can never touch? Maybe this would allow me to finally put my Pushing Daisies curiosity to rest! (It didn’t. But the book is a beautiful thing in its own right, so I’m not disappointed.)

This is a great book. For someone who’s grown up in a bubble of isolation, Madeline is a surprisingly positive, well-adjusted girl. She’s not perfect, which I appreciated, but she’s still a character that you can root for, and I enjoyed being along for a part of her journey. Because Madeline’s world is so small, the simplest things hold a world of significance. A glance, a smile, a change in posture: all of these things become enormous aspects of Maddy and Olly’s courtship. And the scenes with Madeline’s face and hands pressed up against the window, her entire body straining to be as close to Outside as possible, are heartbreaking.

I am in love with the idea of falling in love with someone based on their mind and ideas and sparkling, witty conversation. The sketches, medical reports, notes, IMs, etc. make this a quick read, but they’re clearly not there for filler; they move the story along in a simple yet effective manner.

It’s difficult to say much about the story without giving away the big things, but let me say this: I saw the ending coming about halfway through the book. And it didn’t take away from the story as much as you might expect. When a book has such a huge, life-or-death sort of thing hanging in the balance, twists and turns of plot mean a lot, and it’s terrible to have things spoiled, even if it’s by your own brain. But having more than an inkling of where things were headed didn’t ruin the book because the writing, and the characters’ reactions to what happens, were strong enough to carry things.

All in all: Worth reading. An adorable love story and a moving, heartbreaking story of family and loss.

Review: Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood. Poppy. 304 pp.

Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood. Poppy. 304 pp.

Fourteen-year-old nerd-boy Dan Cereill is not quite coping with a reversal of family fortune, moving house, new school hell, a mother with a failing wedding cake business, a just-out gay dad, and an impossible crush on the girl next door.

His life is a mess, but for now he’s narrowed it down to just six impossible things…

I’m hesitant to tell you this, because it lowers my odds, but here goes: Novl has a newsletter (I’m not sure of the frequency…maybe monthly?) in which they often host giveaways. Generally, you have to fill out a request form, and if you’re one of the first however-many entrants (the number changes based on how many copies they’ve got), you’ll get a review copy in the mail. The exciting thing about it is that you aren’t notified ahead of time; you just check your mail one day, and — BAM! — there’s a book at your doorstep. It’s wonderful.

I’d actually forgotten about entering to receive Six Impossible Things, so I was doubly excited when it showed up a couple of weeks ago. I’m going to take a page out of Dan’s book and write this review in list form.

Things I Liked About This Book:

1. The cover. I love watercolor-y cover art.
2. The title. I love the hope behind the idea of believing six impossible things.
3. Dan’s shyness. Usually, shy kids in books are made out to be huge geeks (and those are some of my favorite characters…maybe ’cause that’s my demographic?), but sometimes shy kids are just quiet and socially faltering. And I appreciated that about Dan.
4. Dan’s friends. They’re dryly funny in the best ways.

Things I Loved About This Book:

1. The phrase “odd sock.” I’dnever heard it before, but it wiggled its way into my heart immediately.
2. Dan’s mother’s faltering wedding cake business and the way she kept talking customers out of getting married. It’s exactly what I imagine a woman in her situation would do, and it was funny and sad all at once.
3. How squirmy I felt about the way Dan initially got to know Estelle (I don’t want to spoil it for you). It kept me wondering how he would ever come back from that one.
4. The mondegreen “There’s this sky I like,” which now crosses my mind whenever I see a beautiful sunset. It’s the cutest mishearing I’ve ever encountered.

Things I Wasn’t So Crazy About:

1. The title, Six Impossible Things, is phrase from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, my favorite book, so I was disappointed that Carroll’s work didn’t get so much as a nod.

Wow…that’s the only thing I didn’t like. I didn’t realize that until making a list (like Dan — and Rory Gilmore — I’m a big fan of lists).

All in all: I flew through this one! An adorable story, told well. It’s for ages twelve and up, so the language can be a bit simple at times, but the dialogue is excellent and the story is sweet and wonderful.

Review: Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales

Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales. Farrar Straus Giroux. 352 pp.

Tonight the Streets Are Ours by Leila Sales. Farrar Straus Giroux. 352 pp.

I was thrilled to nab a copy of this book at BEA because I’d read Leila Sales’s previous book, This Song Will Save Your Life, and enjoyed it. (Not a favorite, but I thought it was okay.) Also, this one’s got a great-looking cover, more like album cover art than book cover art, you know? And the premise of meeting a fascinating-sounding online personality IRL and seeing what he’s really like sounded interesting. However…this book was nowhere near as good as I was hoping it would be.

I mean, I know that not every online personality is misrepresenting himself, but Arden’s meeting with Peter was just too uncomplicated. They have this unspoken agreement that makes it seem totally normal to stalk an online personality. And then she spends the rest of the night hanging out with this guy when she knows nothing about who he is in reality?! I’m reading a work of fantasy that feels more believable than that to me. (Does that say more about me, or more about the book? I’m not entirely sure…)

The other thing I struggled with is the point of view. Arden’s scenes are told in the third person, which (when combined with her people-pleasing lack of personality) made her feel distant and detached. I didn’t really care about her or what happened to her. I think this was intentional, so that the excerpts from Peter’s blog felt more personal and full of life, but the actual result (at least for me) was to make me uninterested in Arden and her life. Not what you’re hoping to achieve for your protagonist, I assume.

I could say more, I guess, but I won’t. Why? This book just fell flat for me. The setting, the characters, the plot…it was all bland. The title and cover were far more interesting than the book. I wonder if I’m becoming too picky as the years go by, because the more books I read, the more books seem to fall into that vague, three-star category of “boring” and “generic.” It’s sort of like beer: I love craft beer, but I hate when one brewery’s ale tastes just like three other breweries’ ales. It needs to have something distinctive, something that makes it stand out and makes me want to taste it again and again. Otherwise, I won’t waste my money on it — and I certainly won’t recommend it to others. That’s how I feel about books that are just “average.”

All in all: This isn’t a bad book, but it was mediocre, at least to me. There are tons of other books coming out this fall that are more worthy of your time and money.