You’ve got mail.

**Alternate title: Blue’s Clues! I think this image accurately sums up the angst of this book. 

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Not sure just how much I will have to say on this book. For me (a twenty-something, happily married mother of one) it brings back memories of the good, the bad, and the ugly of high school. So let’s just dive right in.

Summary from Goodreads: simon-vs-the-homo-sapien-agenda-book-review-pic-1-by-casey-carlisle
Sixteen-year-old and not-so-openly gay Simon Spier prefers to save his drama for the school musical. But when an email falls into the wrong hands, his secret is at risk of being thrust into the spotlight. Now Simon is actually being blackmailed: if he doesn’t play wingman for class clown Martin, his sexual identity will become everyone’s business. Worse, the privacy of Blue, the pen name of the boy he’s been emailing, will be compromised.

With some messy dynamics emerging in his once tight-knit group of friends, and his email correspondence with Blue growing more flirtatious every day, Simon’s junior year has suddenly gotten all kinds of complicated. Now, change-averse Simon has to find a way to step out of his comfort zone before he’s pushed out—without alienating his friends, compromising himself, or fumbling a shot at happiness with the most confusing, adorable guy he’s never met.

Thoughts:
According to the cover of this book, Teen Vogue calls it, “The love child of John Green and Rainbow Rowell.” Yep. That’s accurate.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda took awhile for me to actually get into. My thought process went a little something like this:

“Ugh… Really Martin? Blackmailing him with emails to get the attention of a girl? *Two pages later* Ugh. The teenage angst! Was I this bad? *Ten pages later* C’MON, Simon… Just tell your friends you’re being blackmailed!!!! (Wait, guess you would have to come out then. Maybe.) *Three pages later* This book is going to take me sooooo long to read! *Page 200* Here already?! WHAT! It’s midnight! I have to be up at 6:30! But it’s ONLY 100 more pages left….”

No kidding. Somewhere along the way, the teenage angst of existential crises and identity issues faded to the background as I became so obsessed with finding out who Blue was. I was sure I had it figured out! (I didn’t.) Somewhere along the way, I was able to enjoy the trip down memory lane – the excitement of first relationships and kisses (granted, it’s more like Simon’s first honest relationship, since he had dated and kissed girls, but that doesn’t count), the struggle of high school friendships, and the changes in familial relationships. One thing I really liked about Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda is that it doesn’t overwhelm you with the developing romance between Simon and Blue. It spends a good bit of time on Simon’s friendships and family as well.

It’s funny that I read this book now because over the past week, before ever picking this book up for FYA Book Club, I have been looking back on my high school self a lot. She’s not someone I particularly like. Like Simon, she could be a self-absorbed jerk. And like Simon, she didn’t know her friends as well as she thought, despite how close they were or how much time they spent together. It wasn’t until college that I really started to value and invest in my friendships, and even that was after my best friend called me out for not being there for her. So reading Simon’s revelations his about his own friendships was very relatable to me.

Also relatable – Simon’s experience with first love. I too am a cynical romantic. I too had the secret “boyfriend”, except instead of Tumblr and email, it was Myspace. (Though, looking back, my secret love could have totally been an old man. Probably a good thing I never met him…) But we have to talk about the elephant in the room – Simon being gay. (Now… I am pretty sure it’s not really an elephant since the whole book centers around his coming out. But I live in Southern Alabama, sooooo… it’s an elephant. Therefore, please bear with me as I am probably about to get fifty shades of honest.)

I’m pretty ignorant when it comes to homosexuality. I ask in advance that you forgive me for anything I say that is offensive. Like Simon’s dad, I don’t mean to be offensive, I just don’t necessarily know where “the line” is.

I grew up with a conservative viewpoint of homosexuality. “The gays” (I say that ironically) weren’t really people I came into contact with much in high school. I knew a guy at a local liberal arts college who was gay, but I never saw him with a boyfriend. When I got to college, friends started coming out, started dating, and I started making new friends who were out. It was like a foreign country to me, and I was admittedly uncomfortable. Again, this is mostly because it was a new world for me. I say all this to say this is the second book I’ve read this year that features a gay male protagonist (the other being Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On, which coincidentally centers around a guy named Simon)…. and I didn’t hate it. At first it was a little awkward since I have never actually seen a guy kiss a guy or a girl a girl. I’ve never talked with gay friends about their relationships (though, duh, I’m assuming they get the same feelings straight people do). But yeah – it’s a strange and intriguing world for me. It’s different. It’s something I haven’t experienced.

So color me surprised when I found myself really invested and even rooting for these fictional characters and their romance plots. Color me surprised when I get the warm fuzzies when Simon finally meets Blue, and it’s just the sweetest. Genders aside; beliefs, convictions, feelings aside; can we all just agree that at their cores, stories of human experience are always moving? We always feel something, we always root for the Simons and Blues of the world, for secret love and happy endings. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel like we want people to be truly happy. Or maybe that’s just me. And I know they’re just characters in a book, but it’s hard not to feel a connection to someone – fictional or real – when you’re in their head, when you hear them out. (Imagine how much better the world would be if we all just listened to each other, like truly listened with an open mind and open heart. Ok, sappy soap box over…)

In short, I liked this book, and that surprises me. It surprises me that I enjoyed my trip down memory lane, but Simon vs. just reminds me of all the joy that came despite the teenage drama – fun memories with friends, silly arguments, and the passion and intensity of first love. It surprises me that I enjoyed this book so much when it featured an experience so foreign to me – coming out. But it’s like Simon says… somewhere in the book that I can’t find anymore because I finished it at 1:36 AM and didn’t remember to mark the page… everyone “comes out” in some way. Everyone has a part of his or herself that they hide from the rest of the world, a part that they eventually reveal as they grow and change. I’m not sure if Simon vs. is a book I will come back to time and again, but it was a quick read that gave me the warm fuzzies. It made me nostalgic for my high school years but also thankful for how much I have grown and the friends that have stuck with me through the years. I promise I’m a better friend now, if only because of them.

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A tough read for a new(ish) mom

Sooooo I’m not even going to look at how long it’s been since I’ve written. I think it was around April 2015? Since then, I had a baby, got a job, ran two half marathons, quit my job to be a stay-at-home mom, kept a few plants alive, killed a few plants, read some books, and successfully kept a baby alive (undoubtedly my biggest accomplishment).

My plan is to (eventually) write a post with brief thoughts on what I’ve read since my last post, assuming I can remember the books or logged them on my Goodreads. Regardless, I finished a book this morning that inspired me to write a review. Not because it was amazing! (It wasn’t). But because it wasn’t my usual genre, and it was thought-provoking. The book? Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay.

51tMFGRJ45LGoodreads summary:
Paris, July 1942: Sarah, a ten year-old girl, is brutally arrested with her family by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ roundup, but not before she locks her younger brother in a cupboard in the family’s apartment, thinking that she will be back within a few hours.

Paris, May 2002: On Vel’ d’Hiv’s 60th anniversary, journalist Julia Jarmond is asked to write an article about this black day in France’s past. Through her contemporary investigation, she stumbles onto a trail of long-hidden family secrets that connect her to Sarah. Julia finds herself compelled to retrace the girl’s ordeal, from that terrible term in the Vel d’Hiv’, to the camps, and beyond. As she probes into Sarah’s past, she begins to question her own place in France, and to reevaluate her marriage and her life.

Thoughts:
My usual genre is YA. I lean towards the fantastical and very fictional (think Harry Potter). Perhaps because reading has always been my escape, something that gives me hope for or relief from the world around. Sometimes I like the sci-fi and fantasy of fiction because it tickles my tendency to ask what if? What if zombies were real? How did the outbreak happen? How would we survive? Would we survive? What if I could make all my problems go away with magic? I could change my hair color or style! I could do the dishes in a flash! The laundry!

But sometimes I like to dabble in other genres, like historical fiction. Like Sarah’s Key. My mother-in-law recommended and loaned me this book, and I honestly didn’t hate it! It was a quick read, mostly because it bounced between two points-of-view, Sarah and Julia. This made the book hard to put down because once something started in one POV, it stopped to jump to the other (though not in an obnoxious way). And though this wasn’t the best use of multiple POVs that I’ve read, it was effective, specifically with Sarah. To read the horrendous round-up experience from the mind of a ten-year-old girl made the story more engaging than it would have been with just Julia’s voice. It gave the story more depth, more heart. It made the story more compelling. And as the mother of a young child, oh boy was it heart-wrenching! To hear the horrors that families, mothers, and children went through, it made me angry more than anything. To imagine my child’s face as he was torn from me and I sent elsewhere… No. Just no. To imagine the outcome my son would have faced. I can’t. It’s probably for the best I have no French or German friends. (Yes, I know I cannot hold them accountable for the atrocities committed years ago, but it will take me a day or two for this growling mama bear to go back into hibernation.)

I gave the book four stars on Goodreads for two reasons – the effective use of Sarah’s voice and the compelling story arc of the round-up. Those two were enough to make this a good read (duh-dum-chhhh) for me. That being said, I found Julia lacking. Granted, I am a twenty-something with a happy, communicative marriage to an American husband. So I can’t relate to middle-aged Julia, living in a foreign country and married to a Parisian man suffering from a mid-life crisis. But despite my best efforts to put myself in Julia’s shoes, I couldn’t connect with her or her story arc. She and her husband do not communicate. Like, even when they realize they should talk, or even when he opens up to her, they just keep their lips sealed tight and push each other away. I don’t really sympathize with people who are too stubborn to just say what they mean and how they feel, even when the problems are years in the making. For the most part, it seems like Julia and her husband, Bertrand, allowed their resentment toward each other to build.

Furthermore, I understand and appreciate her compulsion to learn more about Sarah and see her story through to the end, but that arc just doesn’t salvage my feelings toward Julia. I love her relationship with her kind, intuitive daughter Zoë. I felt myself warmed at her relationship with her husband’s grand-mère, Mamé, and the relationship that grows with his père, EdouardBut alas, not enough to salvage my feelings toward Julia. I find that she puts her marital issues on hold for a story, a story that becomes personal for her and her family, a story that her husband tells her to leave alone. But a story nonetheless. You can’t fully blame Julia. Bertrand is arrogant, uninvolved, and unsympathetic to Julia’s pull towards Sarah’s story. But Julia ignores and neglects her husband quite a bit as well.

Unfortunately, my disconnect from the character of Julia took away from my interest in Sarah and the arc of her character. Because it was filtered through the eyes of Julia and her life experiences, it detracted somehow from my own pull toward Sarah.

So maybe the book is more of a three-and-a-half stars for me. It really is a compelling read. It brings to light the events of the Vel d’Hiv roundup through the eyes of a determined, brave, fictional little girl.  Events that should never be forgotten or swept under the rug. And to see the horrors unearthed by a modern woman whose story connects to the little girl gives this book just enough dimension to make it worth reading.

PS: There’s also a film adaption of this novel that I would like to get my hands onto.

The kind of book you rent from a library

I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan

Summary from Amazon:
Emily Bell believes in destiny. To her, being forced to sing a solo in the church choir–despite her average voice–is fate: because it’s while she’s singing that she first sees Sam. At first sight, they are connected.
Sam Border wishes he could escape, but there’s nowhere for him to run. He and his little brother, Riddle, have spent their entire lives constantly uprooted by their unstable father. That is, until Sam sees Emily. That’s when everything changes.
As Sam and Riddle are welcomed into the Bells’ lives, they witness the warmth and protection of a family for the first time. But when tragedy strikes, they’re left fighting for survival in the desolate wilderness, and wondering if they’ll ever find a place where they can belong. Beautifully written and emotionally profound, I’ll Be There is a gripping story that explores the complexities of teenage passions, friendships, and loyalties.

Thoughts on I’ll Be There:
First off, let me just say that this cover has absolutely nothing to do with the story, besides the fact that there are two androgynous shapes who may or may not be Sam and Emily or Sam and Riddle. So I would consider that a waste of covers space, especially if you judge a book by its cover. But I digress. I read this book purely for the FYA Book Club, and I knew going in that I would not like it. Based on the summary from Goodreads, it just wasn’t up my alley – it’s Nic Sparks meets YA. Nevertheless, I went to my local library (no way I was dishing out money even for a Kindle edition), checked out the book, and cracked the spine. I finished it in only a few hours, despite its 392 page count and my slow reading pace. I ended the book a little surprised that it was so easy to read and such a roller coaster ride of emotions. (At least, it would have been a ride if I had actually felt the intended emotions.) Though I found the book cheesy and riddled with stereotypes, though I found Emily’s parents fickle at best, I will say I appreciate the growth seen in the protagonist Emily Bell.

In the beginning of I’ll Be There, Emily and Sam’s meet-cute is anything but cute. She sings – you guessed it – the Jackson 5’s song “I’ll Be There” for a solo in the church choir. Her singing is horrible, and everyone knows it, but her father forces her into the solo due to his delusions that one of his children is as musically talented or interested as he is. But Emily finds herself steadying as she decides to sing to this random stranger sitting in the back of the church – Sam. They stare into each other’s eyes as fate connects them … Then Emily runs out and throws up. Sam follows and holds her hair back. How romantic, right? I’m sure that leads so many people into long-term, meaningful relationships. (Don’t get me wrong, it totally could.)

Later we see the shallowness of Emily’s character as she thinks about this stranger, whom she now knows is named Sam. She thinks about the things they will do together and the places they will go, how their parents will interact, how she and Sam hopefully like all the same things, etc. Basically, she wants Sam to be an attractive male version of herself – your run of the mill rich, well-traveled teenager. Even as she thinks of problems in her life, her problems are so small compared to Sam’s, whose family life is anything but run of the mill. Granted, she doesn’t know anything about Sam’s troubles.

However, we finally see Emily’s character develop after tragedy strikes her family and Sam’s. She starts to ponder what brings two people together.

“What was choosing someone all about, anyway? Did it come down to understanding how the way the person felt about you made you feel about yourself? … Were people really just mirrors for each other? … Did everyone simply struggle to feel special and be acknowledged for that?
Or was there something else?”

Emily eventually asks herself the question that I feel like most teenage girls asks themselves at least once – Am I only with this guy because I want to unlock all his secrets? Because I want to “fix” him?

Throughout the remainder of the novel, we see Emily grow up little by little. (I guess tragedy does that to people.) She begins to take initiative, stand up for herself, become her own person. Though I still don’t love her by the end of the novel, she isn’t so shallow and annoying anymore.

Perhaps the only truly lovable character in this book, for me at least, was Riddle. The younger brother of Sam, Riddle has some developmental delays and possibly a touch of Asperger syndrome. However, the glimpses we get into his mind and his interactions with those around him, especially animals, will melt your heart. He is so dedicated to those he loves and so strong despite all he goes through.

So though I didn’t love this book, I know it was widely popular. It might be a better read for someone who likes romance, YA, and drama. Personally, I would recommend just renting it from the library. The library is the place to go for books you don’t really hate but you also don’t really like either.

And yes, I am reading the sequel, if only because I am so stubborn I have to know what becomes of these fictional beings, not because I actually liked this book.

Love, Betrayal, and Duty

The Winner's CrimeLast week, I posted my review of Marie Rutkoksi’s The Winner’s Curse, where the lives of Kestrel and Arin collide and intertwine despite Kestrel being the daughter of a general and Arin her slave. The Winner’s Curse ended on such a cliff of possibilities that I immediately purchased the sequel, The Winner’s Crime, on my Kindle and read full speed ahead. However, these books are each so great on their own that I felt the need to review them separately. So, without further ado, The Winner’s Crime, ladies and gentlemen.

Summary from Goodreads:
The engagement of Lady Kestrel to Valoria’s crown prince is the event of a lifetime. It means one celebration after another: balls, fireworks, and revelry until dawn. But to Kestrel it means living in a cage of her own making. As the wedding approaches, she aches to tell Arin the truth about her engagement…if she could only trust him. Yet can she even trust herself? For—unknown to Arin—Kestrel is becoming a skilled practitioner of deceit. She’s a spy passing information to Herran, and close to uncovering a shocking secret.

Despite The Winner’s Curse being predictable (only because it established a romantic storyline, and how many ways can two people realize they are in love?), The Winner’s Crime is definitely not predictable! I was so caught up in the story when reading that I never could figure out where it was going next! And the few times I knew what was coming, it was because the writing was intentional in establishing the much needed dread for a coming event. It is so easy to read this book. (No really, I gobbled it down so fast that I forgot to even eat or drink anything at all in the hours it took me to read this book.) Yet, it is so hard to see Arin and Kestrel begin to doubt each other and grow distant. It’s so hard being the reader and watching these characters lose trust in each other when you’ve read what’s going on in their minds and hearts! But alas! Such is the case in The Winner’s Crime, and it is beautiful even as it unfolds.

The exploration of relationships in this book is part of the reason I enjoyed The Winner’s Crime so much. My three favorite relationships are, in order: Kestrel and her father, Kestrel and the prince, and Kestrel and the emperor. Kestrel and her father have such an intriguing relationship, torn between familial love and duty to country. Kestrel longs for her father to be her comforter and supporter again, but her father struggles so hard with duty to country over family. In the brief moments where we get a glimpse of the general act as a loving Papa, my heart melts. And when we see him choose duty, my heart breaks. It’s no wonder Kestrel struggles so much with her relationship with Arin in the last part of The Winner’s Curse and throughout The Winner’s Crime.

Kestrel’s relationship with Verex, the prince, is also a sweet one to see unfold. Though Verex initially distrusts Kestrel, the two soon form a comradery based on their distrust of the emperor. I find it interesting that the emperor is unnamed, at least as far as I can tell. To me, this gives him an ambiguous power over the rest of the characters, making him seem almost inhuman, someone to be feared because he is unknown and seems omnipotent. He is also cruel and will stop at no end to grow his empire, and that is terrifying! The book spares no details when it comes to one of his torture methods. Even I, as strong stomached as I am, had a hard time reading though it. However, the emperor’s relationship with Kestrel reminds me of the Katniss-Snow relationship in the Hunger Games trilogy. So I am excited to see how it unfolds in the final installment.

Some random things I love about both The Winner’s Curse and The Winner’s Crime:
– I love the covers. So simple, but so beautiful! The dark background, dress colors, and simple font are such a lovely combination. The covers alone make me want to buy the whole set of hardcovers when the final book comes out, and the story is just the icing on the cake!
– Gender roles seem very balanced. It isn’t often that I get on a pedestal for gender equality (though I certainly support gender equality – clue word equality), but this book is refreshing. Women are barkeeps, senators, soldiers, and generals – not just homemakers, babymakers, and pretty people to look at.
– This book blends genres, in my opinion, but it does it so well! It is set in a created world, but that created world is so familiar and reminds me of Romans and Indians and other cultures. It is almost like a fantasy historical fiction (historical fantasy fiction? fantastical historical fiction?), though it isn’t actually based on real world history. The blending of these two genres is so beautifully and seamlessly done that it is easy to get lost in Kestrel and Arin’s world.

By the end of this book, I was so frustrated at Arin for not seeing Kestrel’s intentions all along. But I was also frustrated at Kestrel! She is so blinded by her plans that she doesn’t realize how devious the emperor is! Yet I suppose when we are blinded by love (and in Arin’s case betrayal), we often miss the obvious. Now, I am just patiently waiting on the final book in this trilogy, predicted to make its debut in 2016! In the meantime, I feel like I should go read Titus Andronicus, just to keep up my taste for Roman culture and the struggle of duty versus family.

#MovieMonday: And they all lived happily ever after…

CinderellaOver the past couple of years, there has been an influx in retelling of old fairy tales – Jack the Giant Slayer, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Maleficent, and now Cinderella. I’m sure this retelling has happened for ages, but recently it’s as if it has become the “cool thing to do”, and Disney is not impervious to jumping on the bandwagon.

Kenneth Branagh’s recent production of Cinderella (starring Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, and Richard Madden) does not follow in the footsteps of sweet Cindy’s predecessor Maleficent, where Angelina Jolie gives us a tragic look into the supposed villain’s origins. Branagh is perhaps a bit too wise for such a dramatic change. Now hear me out! It isn’t that I do not love the retelling of a classic story in which all we know is turned topsy-turvy, making the villain the hero and (sometimes) vice versa. I loved Wicked, and I loved the changes to the story of Maleficent and her connection to Aurora (aka: Sleeping Beauty). However, if you changed Cinderella, the pinnacle of princesses, and made Lady Tremaine and her daughters sympathetic characters, the movie would most likely end up being more of a farce or satire of the original than anything else.

Though Branagh sticks close to the story we are given in Disney’s 1950 animated classic, he gives us the chance to get to know the other characters as well. For instance, I enjoyed getting to actually see the parental relationships. First we see Cinderella’s mother and father. From the time we spend with them, we see where Cinderella gets not only her looks, but her kindness in the face of such wickedness. We also get to see more of the Prince and his father, the King, as they struggle to learn the balance between family and duty. And who could forget stepparents? In this version, Lady Tremaine sheds light on a little of her history and why she is so evil. Though her story is one of love and loss, I still do not find it in my heart to feel sorry for this wicked stepmother.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes Branagh makes is having Cinderella and the Prince meet before the ball in a scene vaguely reminiscent of Andy Tennent’s Ever After (you know, that Cinderella film starring Drew Barrymore). The two have a battle of wits, if you could call it that, and the Prince falls for Cinderella’s kindness and determination. Thus when we see the two at the ball, it makes more sense that they only have eyes for each other, making this fairy tale less of your creepy “love at first sight” and now I must hunt this woman down, rescue her, and make her my wife storyline.

I also must praise the cinematography and design of this film! Some shots were absolutely wonderful, from Cinderella’s hasty ball exit to an old-fashioned, eyes highlighted close-up of Cinderella as the clock reminds her of the coming close to her night out. (Unfortunately, I cannot find a still of this.) The use of mirrors in this movie should also be noted as it often comes when a character is reflecting or revealing a part of their true self. And of course, color plays a major role in this film. Cinderella is always in blue, except when in her mother’s pink dress, which eventually becomes blue. (On a related note, I found the scene in which her mother’s dress is torn by her stepsisters quite tame in this film compared to its heartbreaking and enraging animated counterpart.) The stepsisters have their own signature colors – pink and yellow. And Lady Tremaine, in true Disney villain fashion, is decked in green in all but one scene. This, to me, was the most obvious and intentional action of the entire film. I guess this makes sense since Cate Blanchett is arguably the biggest star in the film.

Unfortunately, the green theme is lost in one scene – a scene in which we see Lady Tremaine’s evil fully come to light. Yet, here they dress her not in green but blue, and in a fashion that seems to be a modern nod to the animated Lady Tremaine.

WhosWhoLadyTremaine1Lady Tremaine

Though it’s hard to see in the pictures, note the purple undershirts, ruffled sleeves, and earrings and matching brooch (which is a necklace for Blanchett). Though I appreciate the reference if it even is a nod back in time, I do not understand the break from the green theme. Perhaps she is trying to hide her evil intentions from the other character in this scene (whom shall remain nameless for fear of spoilers).

For me, the shining moment of this film’s cinematography comes near the end, when Cinderella is found and escorted by the Prince’s guard to try on the shoe. Cinderella, who was locked away in the attic by her wicked stepmother, is set free and heads to see the Prince. She closes the door behind her, closing her stepmother in the room Cinderella had previously been locked away in, sealing Lady Tremaine’s fate as a villain.

Though I still prefer the classic animated 1950 version of Disney’s Cinderella, I thoroughly enjoyed Branagh’s live-action film. The actors did a wonderful job bring these characters to life, and the cinematography is reminiscent of a classic era of film long past. Despite that fact that Cinderella is a classic fairy tale, there are changes leading up to the happily ever after that should leave modern audiences a bit happier and far less creeped out.

**Update: Thanks to Georgina at The Aspiring Film Critic, I realized that Kenneth Branagh is Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter films, not that this changes my thoughts on Cinderella, but I could have at least tried to throw in some witty Potter reference! Oh, the missed puns and opportunities. 

The Manic Pixie Dream Boy

The Fault in Our StarsI know I am running a little behind on my Re-Read 2015 Challenge. It has been a busy year full of exciting changes thus far. When I finally started the challenge, I read my January books (Minutes Before Sunset and Seconds Before Sunrise by Shannon A. Thompson) in February and finished off the trilogy with her recent release of Death Before DaylightThen, I jumped straight to Marie Rutkoski’s The Winner’s Curse for my Forever Young Adult book club (and subsequently gobbled down the sequel, The Winner’s Crime). And finally, I got around to my February Pick – John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. 
WHEN I First Read
It was late 2010 or early 2011. I was in college and taking a class called Children’s and Young Adult Literature where we examined what these genres taught their target audiences. It was one of my favorite college classes and professors.
 
WHAT I Remember
I LOVED this book so much! I’m in the minority in that I didn’t shed a tear when I read this nor when I watched the movie. To me, it didn’t seem like we were supposed to cry. Hazel’s voice in the book is very straightforward; the lines are witty and well constructed. Though the book is tragic, the tragedy is addressed in such a way that it seen as just a part of life for a cancer kid. (That probably sounds heartless.)
 
WHY I Wanted to Re-Read
After reading So Obsessed With’s review of The Fault in Our Stars, I got to wondering if maybe I wasn’t a little honeymooned by this book the first time. Perhaps since there was so much hype around it and since I hadn’t read anything like it at that time, I loved it more than I would have otherwise. Or maybe I just loved the class I was taking. Either way, my thoughts were not the same this time around.
 
HOW I Felt After Re-Reading
Oh buddy… You want to talk about a rude awakening! I can’t say I hated TFiOS this time around. I just didn’t love it. It was still easy to read, the writing still clever, and the humor still biting. However, this time around I thought Hazel was a bitter brat (especially when she was describing the other members of support group), Augustus creepy, and both of them pretentious. It’s frustrating that Hazel and Augustus are the same person in different bodies. I get that it’s “romantic”, but it gets annoying. It’s not that I don’t like Hazel – she has her caring and redeeming moments, like when the little girl asks about her cannula. I myself even enjoy the occasional America’s Next Top Model marathon. But overall, I can’t say I want to be friends with either Hazel or Augustus. (I do however want to be friends with Hazel’s parents.)
I also found it interesting that many people who don’t enjoy TFiOS said it is because they don’t enjoy the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope, but after re-reading this book I wondered if they were referring to Hazel or Augustus as the MPDG. (If you haven’t heard of the MPDG trope in film, it basically means that the girl is this immature character who exists solely to encourage the male lead to live a more exciting and adventurous life.) I would argue that Augustus is really a Manic Pixie Dream Boy, and after researching some about the trope, it turns out I am not alone. Matt Patches (what an awesome name!) of the Vulture seems to think the same thing, and he has a hilarious article discussing his issues with Augustus! Warning: It may ruin the book for you! Though he only discusses the movie version of Augustus Waters, his argument for Gus being the MPDB is still valid. Just to give you a taste, he warns us that “crossing Manic Pixie Dream Girl DNA with a teenage boy results in a fiercer predator than anything in Jurassic Park.” (This is the kind of discussion that makes me want to go back to school!) But I digress.
WOULD I Re-Read Again
I would consider re-reading this again, but in at least a year. AT LEAST! It still has great quotes and thought-provoking moments, but I can’t say I will be re-reading this anytime soon. I’m still in the minority with those who did not cry, but now I am joining a new minority – those who do not like this book.

The Reader’s Curse: Learning Self-control

I’ve done it again. I have read the sequel to a book before I can even get the review up. *Insert whiny voice* But this time, I really couldn’t help it! This book was so good and it left you on a cliffhanger. So naturally, I HAD to get the second one and breeze through that one the next day. Right?

I should probably tell you to which book I am referring. Perhaps you have heard of The Winner’s Curse, the first in the Winner’s Trilogy by Marie Rutkoski? I picked it up since it was the February pick for the Forever Young Adult Book Club. I was nervous because one of my best friends, another member of the book club, had already read it and LOVED it, so I didn’t want to hate it. I had also already read so many good reviews about it (like the one at So Obsessed With). I was eager, but nervous. (Not to mention it had been awhile since I read something I enjoyed.) But alas! My fears ended up being nonsensical.

The Winner's CurseSummary from Goodreads:

Winning what you want may cost you everything you love.
As a general’s daughter in a vast empire that revels in war and enslaves those it conquers, seventeen-year-old Kestrel has two choices: she can join the military or get married. But Kestrel has other intentions.
One day, she is startled to find a kindred spirit in a young slave up for auction. Arin’s eyes seem to defy everything and everyone. Following her instinct, Kestrel buys him – with unexpected consequences. It’s not long before she has to hide her growing love for Arin.
But he, too, has a secret, and Kestrel quickly learns that the price she paid for a fellow human is much higher than she ever could have imagined.
Set in a richly imagined new world, The Winner’s Curse by Marie Rutkoski is a story of deadly games where everything is at stake, and the gamble is whether you will keep your head or lose your heart.

My thoughts:

Obviously I have stated that I loved this book. However, there are so many things that I loved! For one, the setting was great. Though it falls into the fantasy category, I would say it blends the fantasy world with our world. The Valorians remind me so much of the Romans – they set about conquering and building an empire they cannot afford, and then they adapt the habits and ways of the people they conquer and enslave.

In Kestrel we find a smart main character. Though she is supposed to decide to be either a warrior or a mother, she does not really want to be either. Instead, Kestrel just wants to play her piano. And despite the fact that she is not good at fighting, she is skilled at strategy. For her general father, this skill is incredibly valuable, and he wants nothing more than for Kestrel to join his army. Unlike her father, I found Kestrel’s lack of fighting abilities to be refreshing in the YA genre. We always read these characters who are physically and mentally adept – Katniss, Harry Potter, Tris, and the list could go on. Yet here we have Kestrel whose only strength is her fingers on keys, not on weapons. Yes, she is very strong mentally, but it is nice that if you met her in the real world, you probably wouldn’t feel the need to run the other way.

Stubborn, strong-willed, and talented at strategy as well, Kestrel meets her match in Arin. He is from the other side of the tracks, but his friendship with Kestrel slowly becomes something more. Though I personally am not into tales of romance, I will say that this is done so well. The main focus of The Winner’s Curse is not the romance – there is so much more going on. For me, the struggle between the history of the Valorians was just as important as the romance between Arin and Kestrel. Through Arin, we are given a view into what it is like to be on the losing side of a battle, which was very thought provoking! I couldn’t decide whose side I was on – Valorians’ or the Herrani’s, Kestrel’s or Arin’s?

Not only are the characters strong leads, but Rutkoski’s writing is fantastic! It is very easy to get lost in her style. She creates such an intriguing and believable society, then fills it with these vivid characters. Unlike many books with multiple points of view, Rutkoski gives Arin and Kestrel very distinct voices. And though the story is predictable in many ways (namely the romance), it still takes you for a ride and throws you for a loop at the end (which is, of course, the reason I immediately purchased The Winner’s Crime on my Kindle and scarfed it down).

Someone Has to Go

Seconds Before SunriseThere is always something scary about reading the final book in a series. Here it is – the conclusion to a story you have been invested in for multiple books and often many years. Will it live up to your expectations? Will it resolve the way you want it to? Will the conclusion fit with the rest of the story?

These were my thoughts this past week as I read Death Before Daylight, the much awaited finale for Shannon A. Thompson’s Timely Death Trilogy. I loved the first two books and gobbled them down faster than I could download them to my Kindle. So when Shannon sent me the PDF of the final book, I was nervous to say the least. After all, the first two books build up the anticipation of a final battle between the First Descendant, Shoman, and the Second Descendant, Darthon. We learn that one of these descendants must die in order for balance to be restored to the Light and Dark realms. So who will it be?

One thing this series has been good at doing from Chapter 1 of Minutes Before Sunset is taking everything you think you know and turning it over on its head. After all, the book practically opens with Eric/Shoman saying, “The Light was evil, and it always has been. Forget archetypes. They’re completely wrong, and they always will be.” Archetypes being wrong is practically the premise of Death Before Daylight, where we learn that everything is not as it seems. Though the Light is evil, the Dark and its elders are full of mistakes themselves. As it turns out, there is a lot to be learned from the Light.

There are so many things I loved about this book. I loved that I got to dive down deeper into the Light realm and see where they lived and learn more about the history of the Light and Dark. For so long I have been trapped in the rocky, damp confines of the Shelter. So to explore the ever-changing Light realm was a refreshing, though not so pleasant, experience. It was also great to see the development of Darthon and, of course, to learn who he is and his connection to Jessica, the Third Descendant. Yes, I had some suspects in mind, and I was pretty much right on the money by the time all was said and done, but the way it all comes to fruition is fantastic. The development of other characters, such as Linda and Robb, who we see more of after they transfer to Hayworth, and the development of Jessica’s friendship with Crystal are all welcome additions in Death before Daylight. Needless to say, with all these teens being potential Lights and Shades, it’s hard to know who to trust when reading. Because of this, the ending of this trilogy is nowhere near neat, but would it be believable if it was? Was the ending messy? Yes. Tragic? Oh, yes. But fitting? Original? Did it give closure? Yes, yes, YES!

However, no book is ever perfect. So without further ado, I want to say there were some things that I didn’t LOVE! Now these are not major complaints, just things that kind of left me meh, for lack of better words. Things that, though I feel this way, other people might not. For one, though the ending was fantastic, unpredictable in a lot of aspects, and overall wonderful, I ended the book thinking, “Ok…” I had and still have no burning desire to reread this ASAP. My heart wasn’t bursting with joy at how it all came together, nor was I shattered that certain characters died. I don’t know if there is anything Shannon could have done to make me love the ending more, nor am I Shannon’s sole reader. It isn’t her responsibility to please me with every writing decision she makes. It is her responsibility to write her characters and story as she sees fit. The ending was great. It really was. But something about it just left me sitting there in my bed not really thinking much of anything.

There is also this teenage lack of trust that permeates this book, more so than the previous ones. Don’t get me wrong, it’s typical Young Adult genre distrust. You find it in Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight, etc. And maybe now that I am a married, pregnant, twenty-something, that distrust does not resonate with me. The distrust fits the story and is often valid. For instance, the younger characters in Death Before Daylight have reasons not to trust the elders of the Dark. The elders keep secrets from the younger generations – important and potentially life-altering secrets. However, there are times I could not help thinking that Jessica would be better off if she would trust Eric, or that Eric would be better off if he would clear his head and trust Jessica enough to realize what she is doing. (I mean, if they couldn’t trust their friends or their elders, couldn’t they at least trust each other?) There were even times where I thought that maybe if these young whippersnappers would tell the adults what they were up to, the adults might actually help out. But alas, that is not how teens operate. Maybe it has been a few years since my teenage days, or maybe I trusted adults too much, but there was a definite disconnect between this lack of trust and myself. Then again, I am not necessarily Shannon’s target audience.

Finally, there was a plot hole. (Yes, now is your turn to glare at me for noticing every little plot hole.) BEWARE THE SPOILER, BY THE WAY! One of Jessica’s powers that we learn about in the first book is her ability to create these purple sparkles that seemingly have no purpose other than being pretty and making the ground glittery looking. There seems to be nothing significant about them, but c’mon! An author does not drop a tidbit like that in there with no purpose of revisiting it. Flash forward to the second book – Jessica’s memory is erased. Eric is busy moping around about his lost girlfriend, the first person in a long time he has made such a strong connection with, and worrying about his upcoming battle with Darthon. As he sits there, he creates little sparkles too – like Jessica’s, but blue. Again, you know the author will revisit this magical glitter. (Cue drumroll.) THIRD BOOK! Turns out Jessica’s pretty purple rain of sparkles summons Darthon to her! However, it is apparently a power that only Darthon and Jessica share. Yet, wait…. Shoman made these sparkles too, back in book two! Whaaaat? And if the sparkles called Darthon to the Third Descendant, why did he never come all the times Jessica made it rain? Was he just biding his time until she was ready to meet him and learn about the Light?

Don’t get me wrong, the plot hole is really a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. None of my issues with Death Before Daylight were deal breakers towards my affection for this trilogy. I still love it. I still think Shannon did a fantastic job. I still love YA literature. I still think this was a perfect ending to the trilogy. I loved learning about the Light, and I loved learning more about these elusive characters.  Overall, Shannon ends the Timely Death Trilogy in the most fitting manner possible by meeting and defying our expectations, teaching us that not everything is as it seems, and that true friendship is ultimately what gets you through hard times.

Finally, I am excited to be a part of the upcoming cover reveal for Minutes Before Sunset on March 18! Now that Shannon has anew publisher, the Timely Death Trilogy is getting published with beautiful new covers. Having seen the cover myself, I think the new cover will be a hit. I personally like it better than the original cover, so I am interested to see what her readers think of the new one! Stay tuned for the cover reveal a week from now. Until then, I just have to share with you all my cool Member of the Dark Badge!

Member of the Dark Badge

What do you think about Death Before Daylight? Was it a great ending to the trilogy, or did it leave you wanting more?

Re-Read 2015!

Re-Read Challenge

I would by no means call myself a homebody. If there is a place to visit, a plane to catch, an adventure to be had, I am there! However, there comes a point where I am just happy to be back in my own bed. That point has finally come. For my husband and I, the holidays mean weeks upon weeks spent in the car driving up and down the Eastern United States. With no kids and flexible schedules, this holiday was no exception – traveling between Florida, North Alabama, Ohio, and New Orleans (for the Sugar Bowl, nonetheless) was no joke. FINALLY we have settled back home and into a routine. Surprisingly, with all that traveling, I did not get through many books. Instead, I was hard pressed to binge watch The Office (the US version) since I was the only person breathing who had not seen that show.

Now, I am done with The Office and have sworn to myself that I will not start another television series until I have gotten back to flipping some pages. (Unfortunately, I have not kept said promise, but the new show isn’t nearly as addicting.) This means I finally get to write a post I have been contemplating for weeks – the Re-Read Challenge for 2015! Basically, I will be re-reading a book/series a month and probably will even write a review on it. I personally LOVE re-reading books because it usually does one of four things for me:

  1. I fall in love with the book all over again.
  2. The Honeymoon Phase ends and the starry-eyes fade, allowing me to finally see the book’s weaknesses.
  3. I grow to love the book despite/because of its flaws.
  4. I might even begin to like a book I initially wasn’t fond of (because really, can you ever HATE a book?).

I guess another option would be that I would be reminded of why I didn’t like a book in the first place, but it has been a long time since I have read a book I didn’t like. Usually, it takes a lot of convincing for me to re-read a book I did not like.

So without further ado, here is my almost completed list of books I will be re-reading this year!

January: The first two installments of Shannon A. Thompson’s Timely Death Trilogy, Minutes Before Sunset and Seconds Before Sunrise. You can read my review of the first two here. I am really excited to re-read these since I received the PDF of the final installment! (Yes, I know January is almost over, so this re-read review might come early February. January has been a busy month, and my desire to read has waned a bit, as it tends to do from time to time.)
February: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, because Love.
March: The Divergent Trilogy – If ever I was in the Honeymoon Phase with a series, this was it! Read them all in a week and cried like a newborn at the end. I thought, unlike a large portion of society, that the ending was fitting and Veronica Roth was a brave new favorite author. Then I started talking to friends … and my opinions began to waver because I am easily persuaded. Now that I have read and discussed multiple opinions, I am so ready to re-read this series and see what happens to my thoughts. So what better time to re-read than right before the movie premier of Insurgent. Who knows, I might even read Four this month too.
April: Perhaps I will take my birthday month to re-read the beloved Harry Potter series. You can never read that too many times, right?
May: Twilight series – Now that I have read the Fifty Shades trilogy and also grown up quite a bit (I don’t consider these two events to be connected), I look forward to re-reading this series that I loved and devoured once upon a time. It should be interesting to see how my thoughts have changed.
June: Anniversary month means I will be reading one of my most beloved finds, Tahereh Mafi’s Shatter Me series. If you have not read this series, please do so! It is amazing! This will be my third fourth time re-reading this series, and it never gets old! Hannah at So Obsessed With brings up some great points about the series after she re-read it. So if you have read the series or are contemplating reading it, you should definitely check out what she has to say.
July: Shannon A. Thompson’s Take Me Tomorrow, which I have reviewed. The sequel Take Me Yesterday was slated to come out this year, however some hiccups may postpone that indefinitely. And though the book lacked a certain something to completely captivate me last time I read it, I do look forward to reentering the storyline again.
October: I want something a little creepy or scary, perhaps I might read The Girl with All the Gifts instead of listening to it on Audible. Or maybe I will read something by James Patterson, some murder-mystery or thriller. OR maybe this would be the perfect month to re-read Harry Potter since it deals with all that is magical. However, I have a lot going on August through the rest of 2015, so we will see how this goes…
November: The Hunger Games trilogy – I am skipping months because I don’t know when I will re-read what, but because the final movie comes out in November, this is the perfect time to re-read the Hunger Games. This is probably the one book series I disliked so much the first time around. My sister-in-law convinced me to give it another shot though, and I am so thankful I did! I am positive I will write a review on this series (maybe even book-by-book), so I will save my many thoughts until then. For now, let me just say this is a series I love more and more every time I read it, despite and because of its flaws. I love this trilogy so much that I even wrote a capstone (basically a mini-dissertation) on it for college. The lessons and themes in this book are fantastic!

Some other books I am thinking about rereading:

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
Pandora’s Daughter
Anna Karenina 
– I know, I know. Why would I read such a long and old book for fun? Can I be honest? This is one of the most intriguing and beautifully tragic books I have ever read. Tolstoy explores the human emotion, faith, and struggles in such an intricate way. Because of this, I have been itching to re-read Anna Karenina for awhile now. So what better time?
I would love to hear if and what books you plan on re-reading, even if you aren’t doing the challenge! Any suggestions for my empty months?

I don’t do unrequited love…

Ava Lavendar“I was born with wings, a misfit who didn’t dare to expect something as grandiose as love. It’s our fate, our destiny, that determines such things, isn’t it?

Perhaps that was just something I told myself. Because what else was there for me – an aberration, an untouchable, an outsider? What could I say when I was alone at night and the shadows came? How else could I calm the thud of my beating heart but with the words: This is my fate. What else was there to do but blindly follow its path?”

Synopsis: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is author Leslye Walton’s entrance into the writing world. And with her she brings us the Roux family – specifically Emilienne, Viviane, and Ava – all of whom are just a little . . . strange. Perhaps the most outwardly strange of the family is Ava, a normal teenage girl who is born with the white and brown speckled wings of a bird. After being caged to her house and the hill, hidden away from the cruelty of the world, sixteen-year-old Ava sneaks out from her home in hopes of being a normal teenage girl. However, it’s hard to be normal when Nathaniel Sorrows believes you are divine.

Let me just start by saying I don’t do stories of tragic and unrequited love. Perhaps it’s my own teenage experience with such cases, or maybe it is my fear of losing the person I love to some terrible incident. Either way, I can’t stand to read such stories. I have never understood why characters (and real people) settle for someone they don’t love but their family accepts, when there is a person they truly love and who loves them and is available to them. It hurts me, it breaks my heart, to read these stories – and that is the point of them. But I have no tolerance for such sadness, especially when it is preventable. Maybe this makes me an unsympathetic reader, but I am who I am. For this very reason, halfway through Ava Lavender I swore to take a break from books after I finished this one. (This is mostly because a few weeks ago I finished The Best of Me by good ole Nic Sparks, courtesy of my grandmother. And let’s be real, when have we read a truly happy Sparks novel? So needless to say, I am done with tragic love.) Unfortunately, the women of Ava’s family are cursed with tragic love stories, and after reading the story of Viviane, Ava’s mother, I didn’t think I could subject myself again anytime soon to the emotional roller coaster that we love and call reading. However, I say now that I am glad I pressed on, because thankfully, this book ends well.

One thing I truly loved about this book is Walton’s style of writing. She is a master weaver in that she weaves together the story of the Roux women so well, showing how history repeats itself and how the pasts of the women comes into play in their future in what Ava calls fate. Walton also weaves together mystical realism and historical fiction, turning an otherwise ordinary story in an ordinary world into a slightly mystical, though still believable, experience. Her voice, and I believe she uses her voice when writing Ava’s narration, reminds me of J. K. Rowling. Oh, Rowling! Who has the power to drag me into Hogwarts every time I open her books. No matter how many times I have read the Harry Potter series I am always just as enchanted upon reading it again. Though Walton isn’t quite as enchanting and her writing not as strong as Rowling’s, I did enjoy the voice. Walton creates such charming images, saying things like, “The fact filled Gabe with so much hope that he grew another two inches just to have enough room to hold it all.” C’mon! How can you help but to smile?

I also found it interesting that from the get-go, Ava clarifies that she is an unreliable narrator. She tells us in the prologue that some facts are omitted, whether on purpose or accidentally. She admits that her recollection (AKA: the book) cannot be considered a holistic document, and that her accounts are (obviously) biased. So many times as readers we go into books expecting a reliable narrator. Yet, in this book, we are told from the start that is not the case. I personally forgot this warning. So I think it will be interesting when I reread it to read it with the mindset not to trust everything Ava says.

Though Ava’s story is one that is charming, it is charmingly tragic. Because of this fact, be aware that there is a trigger warning. “What’s a trigger warning?”, you ask. (No worries, I didn’t know what it was until just a few weeks ago.) A trigger warning is to let you know that there are some scenes that may be tough to read. In the case of Ava Lavender there is a scene where one character is raped. Therefore, victims of sexual assault or those generally more sensitive to such content should be aware of that. If you would like to know what page this scene is on, feel free to comment or email me and I will be glad to let you know.

Overall, I would give this book 3.5 stars out of 5. However, I feel like star ratings are vague. Perhaps the better way for me to convey if I like a book or not is whether or not I plan on rereading it. And to The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender I say yes, yes I will reread you! I love the magical realism and the historical fiction being woven together. I loved the tragically charming Roux family, with their special abilities and quirks. And though some character plots I think I could have done without, I loved Ava’s struggle with destiny and fate and how all the stories came into play. In due time, I will go and reread her journey again because I believe this is one of those books that you will pick up something new each time you read it.

Favorite Quote: This book has so many good quotes! However, many of my favorites also contain spoilers. Regardless, I have two quotes that really stood out to me and that made me smile. (1) “And that might just be the root of the problem: we’re all afraid of each other, wings or no wings.” (2) “I loved you before, Ava. Let me love you still.”

What about you? Do you enjoy tragic love stories, or do you share my distaste? Can you understand or relate to the pressures of choosing a partner based on your family’s feelings toward the person?

For another great book review of this, check out Forever Young Adult! They bring up some interesting points I hadn’t thought of when writing my review.