Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sweetness, by Lindsay Paige

Sweetness (Bold As Love, #1)Sweetness by Lindsay Paige

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Beautiful, intense and moving. Crazy final chapter, still reeling from that one. Full review to follow, but for now let's just go with WOW!" That was my initial reaction on finishing this, and here's my full review, after further reflection. I'm still going to leave those first thoughts up though, just so I can remember (and you can realize) the big emotional impact this lovely book had on me when I first finished it.

When we first meet MC Emily, she's doing her best to be the invisible girl in the new school where she's starting her senior year. Head down, no eye contact, headphones in/hoodie up whenever possible. And then she's paired on a project with popular Jake, the handsome hockey hero, who she expects/hopes will ignore her like the rest of her classmates. But the weird thing is, Jake "sees" her. And he likes what he sees. Maybe it's because he recognizes someone coping with a world of hurt, since he's living in one too - maybe more successfully from the outside, but it's killing him inside. Maybe if he can solve the mystery of Emily, and help her heal, something good can happen for him, too. Although that's his rationale, I think it's just that - an explanation for an inexplicable attraction that hits them both pretty doggone hard and pretty doggone fast. So fast, in fact, that it further freaks Emily out, and that might be the last Jake sees of her, until he inadvertantly discovers his "secret weapon," his younger brother Drake, who he's pretty much parenting himself after his mom's death, just a year ago, and his dad's subsequent journey looking for her at the bottom of a bottle. Drake somehow manages to slip under Emily's considerable defense mechanisms, and as the three of them spend more time together, magic happens, and both of these wounded and still vulnerable lovers feel themselves coming back to life, with the joy and pain that entails. Unfortunately, life isn't done with them yet, and it has more mean girls, drunk dads, drugged out moms and painful bitter memories to throw at them (some in forms so tangible they can't be papered over). But two are better than one, and when it comes to manning the lifeboats, these two have each other's backs when it really counts (sorry, bit of a crazy metaphor alert there!)

So that's a basic idea of "what happens." But in some ways the story details seem less significant to me than the beautiful, skillful way author Lindsay Paige creates her characters and setting, and the powerful intensity of the language she uses to draw them together, and to draw you into the story. The first thing I read from this book was a quote, added by my Goodreads buddy Chrystle Woods, and it immediately pulled me into the scene and made me want to read more. I don't usually put quotes into reviews, but this one is so apt and awesome, so moving, that I'm going to:

“If I were standing right beside her, I probably would have heard her heart breaking. It would have sounded like the cracking of a wooden bat connecting with a baseball. No, that was too clean of a break. It would have sounded like rain from a powerful thunderstorm pounding on a tin roof. Millions of drops relentlessly pounding away on the surface until it shattered into billions of tiny pieces. Pieces Emily couldn’t put back together by herself.”

Sigh. That's just beautiful to me - it captures that emotion so well, while simultaneously showing us what kind of person Jake is, that it's one of those images you wonder why no one has ever expressed it quite that way or that well before. Which kind of brings me to another point. Although this book was, to me, a compelling read that I had a hard time putting down, it wasn't in an "omg, now what's going to happen next page-turnery" sort of way. To me the book unrolled more like a series of vignettes, episodes illuminated by emotional lightning, in an intensely poetic and lyrical style (see above!). The narrative skips forward sometimes, and there are holes from the past that we only find out about after our hearts have fallen into them. The result is a tone and feeling that is perfectly captured by the book's title. We find out things about Emily and Jake that make it clear that they weren't necessarily angels prior to the circumstances that scarred them - they are real kids, with flaws and foibles. But that makes them and their story all the more real, relatable and authentic feeling.

I read some other reviews before putting these thoughts down, and a couple mentioned that this wasn't as thoroughly edited as the reviewer might have preferred. I dispute that, although it is no doubt true that there are many lovely YA family drama/romances that have been worked over by editorial teams of really cool Ivy League fine arts grads in New York publishing house high rises. Some of them are probably more polished than this, and that's not a bad thing, I've loved lots of those books (see my reviews, honest!) And yet ... maybe I can best express this with a couple of analogies. Lindsay's from North Carolina, where one of my favorite singer/songwriters, James Taylor (uh oh, showing my age alert) grew up. In his awesome song, "Copperline," he sings about his childhood and teenage years, and the still resonant memory of his first taste of moonshine (so weird, this song literally came up on my Pandora Lady Antebellum station just after I wrote those words! - I'm leaving this in!) Anyhoo, JT has had his pick of every single malt scotch, every fine liqueur this ole world has to offer (and I gather that he's tried most of them at some point!), and yet, it's that potent, kind of raw, and unedited taste of moonshine that had the emotional, as well as chemical, impact, to result in a beautiful song, many years later. Here's another: I was a lawyer in several large Chicago law firms for many years, and all of them had gorgeous, impressive reception areas where we spent enough money on flowers every week that it sometimes became a bone of contention. And yet none of those expensive formal and artful arrangements, put together by talented and sophisticated florists, ever had the emotional impact on me of the impromptu fragance of wild lilacs unexpectedly experienced in spring. This is not to say that this isn't a sophisticated and artful book - it truly is. The prose is well crafted, and obviously has been lavished with loving and knowledgeable attention. But it does have the immediacy and authenticity of a fresh, pure and unfiltered voice. To me, that's an enormous part of it's charm. So, all in all, an awesome debut by an author still in high school (sigh, where did I go wrong), who has a lovely and long career of fan-pleasing fiction ahead of her. Thanks Lindsay, for an awesome read!

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Grounding Quinn, by Stephanie Campbell

Grounding QuinnGrounding Quinn by Stephanie Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For those of us who prefer dysfunction to dystopia, relationships to spaceships, cupid's darts to bows and arrows, and real emotions to EMOTING, this is an awesome book. When we first meet MC Quinn, she's in the principal's office, sneakily blacking out her father's smarmy class photo smugface with a Sharpie. And Quinn spends most of the rest of the book trying to obliterate herself, as well. She's actually doing a pretty good job of it, too, what with the prescription drugs she steals from her wacked out mom, her "fake it till you make it" relationships with various frenemies and faux boyfriends, and sliding through school with the minimum possible effort (and results). But then this guy Ben shows up ...

Ben is a wonderful male YA character. He's open and vulnerable, without being a creampuff, thoughtful, creative and kind of innocent without being naive. Ok, he's not without his flaws, he's a bit dominated by his GCB mom, and he lets Quinn pull a lot of shit that maybe he should have called her on (I'll grant that I'm not exactly sure how, but still). Quinn is also an awesome character, possessed of a wry, sarcastic wit - she really knows her way around a smart-ass quip, that's for sure - but those of us equipped with internal dialog vision know that she's not without her softer side as well. The first half of the book is really fun, clever, funny, warm and even sweet. Thank goodness we've already fallen in love with Quinn's self-destructive little self by the time she steers the ride out of the Tunnel of Love into the House of Mystery, because it gets pretty darn dark in there. There's one moment in particular (trust me you'll know when you get there) where you want to reach in and shout, "Quinny, no, don't, you're already regretting this!" But alas, she didn't listen, to me, or even to her broken little heart.

The basic story is not unfamiliar to YA readers, especially the "I'm too effed-up for you to love me," theme. But in capable author Stephanie Campbell's hands, it's treated so cleverly, with such literary skill and depth, and with such warmth and compassion towards her characters, that it glows like a nightlight in a dark place. The kids in this book are like many of the kids I know in real life. They are so privileged in so many ways ("You don't know how good you've got it," Quinn's father screams, just when she's at her lowest), but still bereft, after so many nights of "working late," parental affairs and alcohol issues, that they are hollowed out inside. This is a look at how some of them, sometimes, find their way out, despite all that. Stephanie does a masterful job of portraying them, and their world, with humor, style, warmth and compassion for her character and the reader. There is catharsis here, although it's a night light, like I said, not an all consuming sunny glow. And that feels real, just like the rest of this extremely well-done and lovely book.

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Monday, March 19, 2012

Remembrance, by Michelle Madow

Remembrance (Transcend Time, #1)Remembrance by Michelle Madow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I remember the first time I heard "Love Story," by Taylor Swift. It seemed different for her, intense and kind of haunting, and I loved it (2,000,000 times later I admit I may have lost a trifle of that initial enthusiasm, but hey, it's still a good song!). The video that went with it was also pretty cool, and apparently Michelle Madow thought so too, because she imagined a story to go with it, which turned into this book. Here's her discussion of how that happened at her blog, btw, if your're interested: This isn't a literal retelling of the "story" of the song or the video, it feels more like an attempt to capture the emotions, the vibe, the atmosphere of the video in a contemporary setting (with flashbacks to Jane Austen times - yes, it's rife and replete with Pride & Prejudice references). I think it does a great job of creating that crazy feeling of being desperately in love, especially with the "wrong" person who feels so painfully right that you aren't whole without them. The characters are great. Elizabeth/Lizzie (get it, Bennett fans?) and Drew (he's the reason for the teardrops on her guitar, yes, I'm a big TSwift nerd, #sorry i'm not sorry)are so intense and dreamy that it's hard not to get caught up in their emotions. In some ways I get a little bit of a Twilight-y vibe from their relationship, that whole "I have to make you hate me because I'm not good for you" thing, but it's not in the least bit off-putting, because it adds to the mystery and tension build up for when they finally explode together. There's lots of classic YA elements here, quasi-reincarnation, past lives getting a second chance, attraction to best friend's boyfriend, bad break-ups, throwing pebbles at the window (pinecones, this time), sneaking out to the garden to see you, all mixed up together and served fresh.
I really thought it was cool that this was initially written for a freshman creative writing class - it totally reminds me of the story that opens Jennifer Echols "Love Story," the one that Erin writes in her creative writing class. Weird that the name of that book is the song that inspired this one. Like I alluded to above, it's not just the story and the lovely writing that I find so charming, it's also how it came to be, and the author's enthusiasm and brio, as she brings it to life. Kind of like Taylor Swift when she first started out (I have kind of had it with some of her subsequent "break-up/you're so mean and I'm not" songs), the sincerity, the warmth and affection for the characters and the feelings of crazy love gone wild infuse this book with that feeling that good YA books always give me, of remembering when life was so intense and every day, every incident, was full of either hope or despair, or some weird combination of the two all at once. So, I hope and trust that you will like this, even if you're not a Taylor Swift fan! It's a fun, sweet and emotional ride.

UPDATE: Michelle is touring now (Spring '12), in support of Remembrance, and I had the chance to meet her (and her charming Mom, Anne) as they visited the Chicagoland area. Michelle is just as awesome, enthusiastic and hardworking as you might expect, and if you'd like to participate in some way in her tour, there are still opportunities available at her Remembrance On Tour site, It's a fun way to support a great book and a deserving young author!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Unbreak My Heart, by Melissa C. Walker

Unbreak My HeartUnbreak My Heart by Melissa C. Walker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We meet MC Clementine as her family - Clem, her teacher dad, her on-sabbatical lawyer mom, and her precocious 10 yo sister Olive - are embarking on "The Williams Family Summer of Boating," a three month sail trip from their suburban Chicago home base, all the way down the Mississipi river. Clem, however, is in no mood to enjoy the trip, her family, or anything else. There was this incident, you see, just two weeks earlier, that ended up breaking both her heart and her relationship with long term bff Amanda. I don't want to say too much about what happened between Clementine, Amanda and Amanda's new boyfriend Ethan, since that story is told in chapters that alternate with the story of the summer trip, and part of the book's considerable emotional impact is the slow and rather painful unfolding of exactly what took place. Suffice it to say that as the trip begins Clementine is broken-hearted, ashamed and deeply hurt by the incident and the social opprobrium that followed.

Rivers flow slowly but powerfully, and their currents take some things away and bring other things together. Like James, the red-headed boy Clem meets at their first stop for provisions. James' unfailing good cheer at times threatens to irritate the moody Clem. Eventually, however, she can't help but succumb to his considerable charm as time wears on and their families continue to meet, since James and his father are making the same trip as the Williams. As Clem and James grow closer, she comes to realize that James is not without his own issues and concerns, and that perspective helps as she confronts the past and begins to heal.

This is a lovely, sweet, slow moving, thoughtful and often funny book. It's not really a romance, although there is some very sweet romance, it's more a growing up, family drama kind of story. One of the really wonderful things about this book is the portrayal of the relationship between Clementine and her family. Fully functioning families are kind of rare in YA-dom, but the author does a lovely job of creating one here. Clem's parents are appropriately clueless, crazy-making and intrusive, but also supportive sources of wisdom and unconditional love in the face of overwhelming adolescent angst. Little sister Olive is an especially charming character, funny and direct, saying what everyone else is thinking, but also full of bewildered tenderness for her wounded and sometimes hurtful sister. They, and James, are part of what helps Clementine achieve some perspective about herself, what she did, what is real and what is all in her head, and how she can start to heal and move on with her life.

This is a great read - the story is sweet, the prose is lyrical and evocative, creating a rich atmosphere of the river and its rhythms, and the sweet slow pace of a summer spent growing, healing and appreciating what is, what was lost, and what can be regained. It's also pretty doggone funny at times, I don't want to give the impression it's all unremittingly broody and moody. The characters and the banter among them are just too witty and fun to let that happen. Definitely a book to savor, and one that makes me anxious to read Melissa's other books!

I was kindly provided an advance copy of this by the publisher through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Good Boy Is Hard To Find

A Good Boy Is Hard to FindA Good Boy Is Hard to Find by Suzanne Young

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a lovely book, chock full of Tessy goodness! It made me laugh out loud, tear up occasionally, and once again, filled me with righteous indignation on Tess's behalf. It's prob good that forgiveness was such a strong theme, otherwise I think I'd have trouble being as generous of spirit as the world's most charming cheerer manages. The author has created such relatable characters, it was hard to stay mad, even at the "bad guys." Thanks to Suzanne for bringing this series to such a satisfying and sweet end, and for making it available in this format (I suspect there's a story there, good for her for persevering!)

If you haven't read this series yet, you are missing out on a great YA reading experience. Frothy sounding, but like the richness of a dark mocha lurking beneath the foamy whipped cream top, there is depth, richness, complexity and deep, deep satisfaction.

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