Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday #32: Favorite Books of 2014

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish with a different topic for a top-ten list each week. You can find out more about it here.

This week's topic is: Top Ten Books of 2014

Here are my ten favorite books I read in 2014, in no particular order:

Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

This was my first read of 2014, but I still knew it would be on my list of favorites. It touched me in a very personal way, and I had all of the feels. If you're looking for an emotional read, Love Letters to the Dead is definitely the way to go! 

Breathe, Annie, Breathe by Miranda Kenneally

All books in Miranda Kenneally's Hundred Oaks series are exceptionally well-done romances, but I think this one might be my new favorite. It's a bit darker than the previous ones, but it's still a romance at heart, and I loved everything about it.

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I'll Give You the Sun is too complex for me to even try to explain why it's so great. It took me a while to get through it, but it's worth it - it's just the kind of story you need time to process. In my review I compared it to Jellicoe Road, so I think that pretty much explains it all.

In Honor by Jessi Kirby

I know I'm really late to this party, but I just hadn't gotten around to reading In Honor up until this year, which was obviously a mistake. Jessi Kirby's writing is perfect and exactly what I look for in books.

Torn Away by Jennifer Brown

Jennifer Brown's previous books were only okay for me, but she totally won me over with this one. Torn Away is such a heart-wrenching, honest story, and I loved everything about it.

Dangerous Girls by Abigail Haas

This is another one that I'm way late reading, and I have no idea why I waited so long. Everyone who pushed me to read Dangerous Girls was absolutely right - it's one of the best YA mysteries I've ever read. 

Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang

Falling Into Place is written in a really unusual way, in non-chronological order and with a really random narrator, but somehow, it works. The writing is effortlessly beautiful and heart-wrenching, so if you're looking for a moving, more literary read, this one is for you.

Since You've Been Gone by Morgan Matson

I love all of Morgan Matson's books, and I was so happy she wrote a book focused on friendship rather than romance because we need more of those. The characters are amazing, and it's so much fun to read, even during the more serious parts.

Tease by Amanda Maciel

Tease is such a unique concept, and I loved reading the bullying story from the other side. It's tough to read and made me really angry at times, but it's also eye-opening and a really important story to be told.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

I was really late getting on the Rainbow Rowell train, but it was worth it - everyone who fangirled about her (see what I did there?) was absolutely right; her writing is amazing. Fangil is still my favorite of her novels because I connected so much with Cath, and because I was so happy to read a YA book set in college!

What were your favorite books of 2014?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review: Break by Hannah Moskowitz

Title: Break
Author: Hannah Moskowitz
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: August 25th 2009
Pages: 262
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: Bought
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Jonah is on a mission to break every bone in his body. Everyone knows that broken bones grow back stronger than they were before. And Jonah wants to be stronger—needs to be stronger—because everything around him is falling apart. Breaking, and then healing, is Jonah’s only way to cope with the stresses of home, girls, and the world on his shoulders.
When Jonah's self-destructive spiral accelerates and he hits rock bottom, will he find true strength or surrender to his breaking point?
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I loved Hannah Moskowitz's newer releases, but for some reason I'd been holding off on reading her debut. Both because just generally, it can be kind of disappointing to have seen what a writer can do now, and then go back to their possibly-not-as-strong debut, and just because of the subject matter - I like darker YA books, but the whole bone-breaking thing just seemed a bit too disturbing. But I never should have doubted Hannah Moskowitz - while it's not going to be my favorite of her books (that's Gone, Gone, Gone), I did really enjoy Break.

The whole bone-breaking thing seemed kind of absurd at first, but within the context of the novel, it totally makes sense. It's painful to read about at times, but Hannah Moskowitz's writing makes it so compelling you can't even think about putting the book down. And of course, the bone-breaking storyline isn't all that Break is about. This seems to be a pattern for Hannah Moskowitz's books: they're usually marketed for one plot, but then turn out to be so much more. And if you thought Jonah breaking his own bones was intense, it's got nothing on the rest of this novel.

More so than the bone-breaking, Jonah's family is the main focus of the novel. (Although, of course, that wouldn't have made for a particularly intriguing back cover.) The family set-up is the most unique I've read about in a long time. I don't even want to talk about it much because I think it works best when you discover the intricacies of the family dynamics on your own. Jesse and Jonah have an incredibly complex brother-brother relationship, proving once again that Hannah Moskowitz is the best at writing sibling relationships. I wish the relationship between the parents had been explored a bit more, but all in all, the whole family is fully-developed and impressively layered.

My only complaint would be the ending, which felt rushed to me. I understand that Hannah Moskowitz wanted to end with the first step towards healing, but it left so many questions unanswered. And not just the what-will-happen-next kind of questions (which would be to be expected), but also simple questions about the plot, like what was all of that with the volunteer that helped Jonah? What's going on with Charlotte? I get why Hannah Moskowitz chose to end the novel this way, but I really wanted these questions to be explored more.

While you can tell that Hannah Moskowitz's writing isn't quite as developed yet as it is in some of her later novels, Break is a really impressive debut. If you're looking for a dark, disturbing but ultimately hopeful novel with intriguing characters and complex relationships, Break is the novel for you!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Bookish Anticipation #44

Bookish Anticipation is a feature I do every once in a while to spotlight future releases I'm excited for. It was inspired by Breaking the Spine's Waiting on Wednesday. You can check out more of my Bookish Anticipation posts here.

99 Days by Katie Cotugno
Release date: April 21st 2015
Day 1: Julia Donnelly eggs my house my first night back in Star Lake, and that’s how I know everyone still remembers everything—how I destroyed my relationship with Patrick the night everything happened with his brother, Gabe. How I wrecked their whole family. Now I’m serving out my summer like a jail sentence: Just ninety-nine days till I can leave for college, and be done.
Day 4: A nasty note on my windshield makes it clear Julia isn’t finished. I’m expecting a fight when someone taps me on the shoulder, but it’s just Gabe, home from college and actually happy to see me. “For what it’s worth, Molly Barlow,” he says, “I’m really glad you’re back.”
Day 12: Gabe got me to come to this party, and I’m actually having fun. I think he’s about to kiss me—and that’s when I see Patrick. My Patrick, who’s supposed to be clear across the country. My Patrick, who’s never going to forgive me.
The Fill-In Boyfriend by Kasie West
Release date: May 5th 2015
When Gia Montgomery's boyfriend, Bradley, dumps her in the parking lot of her high school prom, she has to think fast. After all, she'd been telling her friends about him for months now. This was supposed to be the night she proved he existed. So when she sees a cute guy waiting to pick up his sister, she enlists his help. The task is simple: be her fill-in boyfriend— two hours, zero commitment, a few white lies. After that, she can win back the real Bradley.
The problem is that days after prom, it's not the real Bradley she's thinking about, but the stand-in. The one whose name she doesn't even know. But tracking him down doesn't mean they're done faking a relationship. Gia owes him a favor and his sister intends to see that he collects: his ex-girlfriend's graduation party — three hours, zero commitment, a few white lies.
Just when Gia begins to wonder if she could turn her fake boyfriend into a real one, Bradley comes waltzing back into her life, exposing her lie, and threatening to destroy her friendships and her new-found relationship.

Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu
Release date: May 12th 2015
Montana and her sister, Arizona, are named after the mountainous states their mother left them for. But Montana is a New York City girl through and through, and as the city heats up, she’s stepping into the most intense summer of her life. Her father is distracted by yet another divorce, and she’s growing apart from her sister. Then she meets wild, bold Karissa, who encourages Montana to live in technicolor and chase new experiences. But the more of her own secrets Karissa reveals, the more Montana has to wonder if Karissa’s someone she can really trust.
In the midst of her uncertainty, Montana finds a beautiful distraction in Bernardo. He’s serious and spontaneous, and he looks at Montana in the way she wants to be seen. For the first time, Montana understands how you can become both lost and found in somebody else. But when that love becomes everything, where does it leave the rest of her imperfect life?

Even When You Lie to Me by Jessica Alcott
Release date: June 9th 2015
Charlie, a senior, isn't looking forward to her last year of high school. Another year of living in the shadow of her best friend, Lila. Another year of hiding behind the covers of her favorite novels. Another year of navigating her tense relationship with her perfectionist mom.
But everything changes when she meets her new English teacher. Mr. Drummond is smart. Irreverent. Funny. Hot. Everyone loves him. And Charlie thinks he's the only one who gets her.
She also thinks she might not be the only one with a crush.

Gone Too Far by Natalie D. Richards
Release date: January 15th 2015
Piper Woods can't wait for the purgatory of senior year to end. She skirts the fringes of high school like a pro until the morning she finds a notebook with mutilated photographs and a list of student sins. She's sure the book is too gruesome to be true, until pretty, popular Stella dies after a sex-tape goes viral. Everyone's sure it's suicide, but Piper remembers Stella's name from the book and begins to suspect something much worse.
Drowning in secrets she doesn't want to keep, Piper's fears are confirmed when she receives an anonymous text message daring her to make things right. All she needs to do is choose a name, the name of someone who deserves to be punished...

Saint Anything by Sarah Dessen
Release date: May 5th 2015
Peyton, Sydney's charismatic older brother, has always been the star of the family, receiving the lion's share of their parents' attention and—lately—concern. When Peyton's increasingly reckless behavior culminates in an accident, a drunk driving conviction, and a jail sentence, Sydney is cast adrift, searching for her place in the family and the world. When everyone else is so worried about Peyton, is she the only one concerned about the victim of the accident?
Enter the Chathams, a warm, chaotic family who run a pizza parlor, play bluegrass on weekends, and pitch in to care for their mother, who has multiple sclerosis. Here Sydney experiences unquestioning acceptance. And here she meets Mac, gentle, watchful, and protective, who makes Sydney feel seen, really seen, for the first time.

What releases are you anticipating this week? 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Review: The Secrets of Lily Graves by Sarah Strohmeyer

Title: The Secrets of Lily Graves
Author: Sarah Strohmeyer
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Release date: May 6th 2014
Pages: 298
Genre: Young Adult contemporary mystery
Source: Bought
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Growing up in a house of female morticians, Lily Graves knows all about buried secrets. She knows that perfect senior-class president Erin Donohue isn’t what she seems. She knows why Erin’s ex-boyfriend, hot football player Matt Houser, broke up with her. And she also knows that, even though she says she and Matt are just friends, there is something brewing between them—something Erin definitely did not like.
But secrets, even ones that are long buried, have a way of returning to haunt their keeper.
So when Erin is found dead the day after attacking Lily in a jealous rage, Lily's and Matt’s safe little lives, and the lives of everyone in their town of Potsdam, begin to unravel. And their relationship—which grew from innocent after-school tutoring sessions to late-night clandestine rendezvous—makes them both suspects.
As her world crumbles around her, Lily must figure out the difference between truth and deception, genuine love and a web of lies. And she must do it quickly, before the killer claims another victim.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I'd never read a Sarah Strohmeyer book before, but I'd heard they were a ton of fun, and that's exactly what I got from The Secrets of Lily Graves. I've read a lot of bad reviews of this one, complaining that the story is unoriginal and predictable, and I can totally see where those reviewers are coming from. But... I just didn't care. This novel was so much fun to read that I didn't care about the little things and just flew right through it, and that's all that really mattered to me.

I really enjoy mysteries, and because I haven't read a ton of them, I think I'm pretty easy to please when it comes to mystery storylines - I don't care if they're not the best thought-out, but I love these fun YA mysteries. I liked the mystery in The Secrets of Lily Graves, and I didn't see the resolution coming at all; others thought it was predictable, but I for one was on my toes throughout the novel. Looking back, the murderer isn't the most creative choice, but I didn't see it coming, and I thought it was suspenseful throughout.

My favorite part of The Secrets of Lily Graves was, by far, the setting of the funeral home. I've read one other book about the daughter of funeral home owners, but I felt like I learned a lot more about the business in this one. I know it's kind of morbid, but I found the little details we learn about her family's work fascinating! I especially liked reading about her aunt's work of getting the bodies ready to be displayed - I never knew how much of a science that was! 

The characters in this novel are pretty good. Although she's a very typical YA heroine, I really liked Lily; she has a very strong voice that I really enjoyed. Her whole family is great: I loved reading about her mom, her badass aunt, and her grandma, who are all involved in the morticians' business. One element of the family that is underdeveloped, though, is Lily's father: we learn that he's dead, but that's all, and I wish that had been explored more. Then there's Matt, the love interest. He's okay - he has some redeeming qualities, but he's still a very cookie-cutter, stereotypical popular jock who's secretly nice and falls for the outcast girl. Sara, Lily's best/only friend, is a really unique and interesting character, too. The only issue I had with her is that her name is Sara, almost like the author's name, which I just thought was kind of strange...

That's pretty much all I have to say about The Secrets of Lily Graves. No, it's not going to be a book that impacts my life or that will stay on my mind forever, but it was a fun (if somewhat generic), quick read, and I really enjoyed it. If you're looking for something quick and fun that doesn't require a lot of thinking, you should definitely give The Secrets of Lily Graves a try.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Review: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Title: The Lucy Variations
Author: Sara Zarr
Publisher: Little, Brown BYR
Release date: January 1st 2013
Pages: 336
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
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Lucy Beck-Moreau once had a promising future as a concert pianist. Now, at sixteen, it's over. A death, and a betrayal, led her to walk away. But without music in her life, Lucy's not sure who she is, or who she wants to be. Then she meets Will, her brother's new piano teacher, who is young, kind, and interested in helping Lucy find her way back to piano-not for an audience, but on her own terms.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

It's no secret I love Sara Zarr. She is one of my favorite writers, and Sweethearts is one of my all-time favorite books. And while I definitely saw some of the things I loved about Sara Zarr's previous books in this one, I just didn't connect with The Lucy Variations as much as I wanted to.

Honestly, a large part of why I didn't connect with The Lucy Variations as much as I did with Sara Zarr's previous books is the third-person narration. Sara Zarr is a master at creating relatable protagonists whose heads you enjoy being in, and I just don't think it worked as well in the third person as it does in the first-person narrations she has previously used. I liked Lucy's character, but it was a lot harder to connect with her than it was for me to care about Sara Zarr's previous main characters. Somehow, the third-person POV made some parts of the narrative just sound kind of awkward: parts sounded more like the narrator was summarizing events, rather than actually showing us what was happening. And since Sara Zarr's writing is what I usually like best about her books, I had a hard time with The Lucy Variations, where I didn't find the writing to be quite as strong.

Another issue I had was the pacing - it was really hard for me to get invested in the plot. This might just have been because I started the book at a busy time in the semester, so I couldn't read through it all as fast as I usually do, but I just didn't have that need to pick up the book whenever I could. I know this is a character-driven story, but the plot was so slow that I just got kind of bored at times. I think the pacing could have been more balanced over the course of the novel: very little happens for the first 250 pages or so, and then all the action towards the ending feels rushed in comparison.

The secondary characters are okay. I thought the family set-up was really interesting, with the pressure originating from an overbearing grandparent rather than parent. But at times, Lucy's family just felt a bit too one-dimensional, and it felt like they just kept saying the same things over and over again.

One thing I did really enjoy is Lucy's relationship with Will - not because I wanted them to be together, but because I thought that this added an interesting dynamic to Lucy's character. I also really enjoyed the ending, and I appreciate that Sara Zarr went with an empowered, independent development for Lucy's character, rather than going to standard romantic route.

I feel like most of my review is negative, but I did enjoy The Lucy Variations - I really liked the idea, and Sara Zarr does handle the development of Lucy's character arc over the course of the story really well. But because I had such high expectations from Sara Zarr, one of my favorite writers, I was disappointed that The Lucy Variations didn't quite live up to some of her earlier novels.
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