Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review: Life by Committee by Corey Ann Haydu

Title: Life by Committee
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release date: May 13th 2014 
Pages: 304
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
Tabitha might be the only girl in the history of the world who actually gets less popular when she gets hot. But her so-called friends say she’s changed, and they’ve dropped her flat.
Now Tab has no one to tell about the best and worst thing that has ever happened to her: Joe, who spills his most intimate secrets to her in their nightly online chats. Joe, whose touch is so electric, it makes Tab wonder if she could survive an actual kiss. Joe, who has Tabitha brimming with the restless energy of falling in love. Joe, who is someone else’s boyfriend.
Just when Tab is afraid she’ll burst from keeping the secret of Joe inside, she finds Life by Committee. The rules of LBC are simple: tell a secret, receive an assignment. Complete the assignment to keep your secret safe.
Tab likes it that the assignments push her to her limits, empowering her to live boldly and go further than she’d ever go on her own.
But in the name of truth and bravery, how far is too far to go?
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I loved Corey Ann Haydu's debut, OCD Love Story, and there has been so much buzz for this one, so I had high expectations for Life by Committee. And luckily, those expectations were met completely! Life by Committee is an absorbing and thought-provoking read, and I absolutely loved it.

Tabitha is what I loved most about Life by Committee. I could see how others might object to some of her decisions, but I for one loved her. I could definitely relate to her struggles, and her honesty is what I loved most about Tabitha. She is so open about what she's going through, and... I don't even know how to explain it; there's just something about Tabitha's voice that spoke to me in a very personal way.

The whole idea of the Life by Committee site is so intriguing. I found my feelings about the site mirroring Tabitha's: I was sucked into it just as much as she was, I felt the thrill of completing the assignments, and I wanted Tabitha to keep going and going, even when the assignments get a bit too intense. I absolutely loved the plot twist about the site's members because I totally did not see that coming. (Although there's a small detail about the twist that didn't add up, in my opinion.)

Tabitha's real-life issues are just as fascinating as the website. The romance is dumb and it was obvious to the reader throughout that Joe is an idiot, but it was necessary for this to work, and it felt realistic. The family set-up is very unique, and I loved reading about it, even if I wish there had been a bit more development of that storyline at the end. My favorite part, though, was the strong theme of friendship: the drama between Tabitha and her ex-friends brought up some interesting issues, and I loved reading about her relationship with Elisa, as well as the other friendship that is hinted at towards the end. These different storylines intertwined in masterful ways to create a story that I absolutely loved.

The ending, to be honest, was a bit cheesy. Am I the only one who kept picturing the ending of Mean Girls throughout that entire scene? It totally works in Mean Girls because it's Mean Girls, but I'm not sure it works here. Even though I appreciated the message, the scene felt a bit forced and melodramatic, and I kind of wish there had been a more subtle way to resolve all of this.

Despite the slight melodrama, I absolutely loved Life by Committee. With a strong, honest voice and a story that is both entertaining and thought-provoking, Life by Committee is everything I'd hoped it would be, and more. Tabitha's character spoke to me in a very personal way, so I can't judge how well that would work for other readers, but I still definitely recommend it for the unique and intriguing story.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Review: Gracefully Grayson by Ami Polonsky

Title: Gracefully Grayson
Author: Ami Polonsky
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release date: November 4th 2014
Pages: 208
Genre: middle grade contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
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Alone at home, twelve-year-old Grayson Sender glows, immersed in beautiful thoughts and dreams. But at school, Grayson grasps at shadows, determined to fly under the radar. Because Grayson has been holding onto a secret for what seems like forever: “he” is a girl on the inside, stuck in the wrong gender’s body.
The weight of this secret is crushing, but leaving it behind would mean facing ridicule, scorn, and rejection. Despite these dangers, Grayson’s true self itches to break free. Strengthened by an unexpected friendship and a caring teacher who gives her a chance to step into the spotlight, Grayson might finally have the tools to let her inner light shine.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Gracefully Grayson is such an important book. Without being preachy, Gracefully Grayson sends a powerful message while still telling an engaging story. Ami Polonsky handles the topic at hand gracefully (get it?), and I absolutely loved it.

Generally, I prefer books with bigger stories about characters who just happen to be LGBT over books that focus mainly on the character's LGBT identity, because it's so important to show that not only straight, cisgender white people can have adventures and have stories that deserve to be told. But Gracefully Grayson sort of blurs the line between the two: yes, Grayson's gender expression and identity are the most important subject, but there are plenty of other storylines that tie into this theme in one way or another. And while stories about characters who happen to be gay/lesbian/bisexual/etc. should definitely be a thing by now, I (sadly) don't know if our society is ready for the same thing with a transgender character. Since a transgender identity is (again, sadly) still so controversial, it makes sense for the experience to be so overwhelming for this to be the focus of Grayson's story.

Ami Polonsky handles Grayson's experience with the utmost respect and honesty. Gracefully Grayson is not an in-depth exploration of why Grayson would like to be a girl - a preference for girls' clothes is the only indicator we really get to see - but I didn't mind because Grayson absolutely does not have to justify his feelings to anyone. The focus is more on the effects of this identity; this is simply Grayson's story. I also appreciated that sexuality is not brought into any of this, since it's important to show that gender identity and sexual orientation don't have to be related, and I'm glad the focus remained solely on Grayson's gender expression.

It's hard to separate the issue of gender expression from the rest of the novel, since it affects pretty much everything in Grayson's life, but I loved all of the other storylines as well. The cast of characters is great, showing a wide variety of reactions to Grayson's experience. I loved seeing Grayson find friends and be who he wants to be in theater, and while of course I didn't agree with them, it's interesting and realistic to see how Grayson's aunt and uncle (with whom she lives) try to deal with all of this. I especially loved the ending, which is optimistic and hopeful without being unrealistically happy.

With beautiful writing and a strong, relatable main character, Gracefully Grayson is an honest, moving, powerful story that I loved. I definitely recommend giving Grayson the chance to tell her story to you as well.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Review: Criminal by Terra Elan McVoy

Title: Criminal
Author: Terra Elan McVoy
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release date: May 7th 2013
Pages: 288
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: BEA 2014
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Nikki’s life is far from perfect, but at least she has Dee. Her friends tell her that Dee is no good, but Nikki can’t imagine herself without him. He’s hot, he’s dangerous, he has her initials tattooed over his heart, and she loves him more than anything. There’s nothing Nikki wouldn’t do for Dee. Absolutely nothing.
So when Dee pulls Nikki into a crime – a crime that ends in murder – Nikki tells herself that it’s all for true love. Nothing can break them apart. Not the police. Not the arrest that lands Nikki in jail. Not even the investigators who want her to testify against him.
But what if Dee had motives that Nikki knew nothing about?
Nikki’s love for Dee is supposed to be unconditional…but even true love has a limit. And Nikki just might have reached hers.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Criminal turned out to be really different than I'd expected. I had assumed the story would start with Nikki being happy with Dee, show how he gradually pulls her into this darker stuff, and then escalate with the murder. I figured the novel would end with Nikki finally giving up Dee and going to the police. But that's not how Criminal is set up. The story starts with the murder and deals mainly with the aftermath. This set-up has its pros and cons: it made me feel Nikki's despair, and it let us see what happens later on, but it also made it a bit harder to understand why Nikki won't give Dee up, since we never get to see the two of them together before things went so wrong. 

It isn't easy to be in Nikki's head. Seeing her continue to defend Dee, to abandon herself and everyone around her to do exactly what Dee tells her, to basically wreck everything for her obsession with Dee... it gets frustrating. But Nikki's character is so well done that I sympathized with her despite her flaws. Her life leading up to this point has been rough, to say the least, and it's easy to understand why she would cling on to Dee, when so many other people have abandoned her. Being inside Nikki's head is harrowing, emotional, and sometimes painful, but I loved it. The cast of secondary characters isn't too complex or lovable (except for Bird, of course), but they do add a lot to the story.

Like I said earlier, the downfall of starting this story with the crime is that we don't get to know what Dee and Nikki were like before things went so wrong. In any story about an unhealthy relationship, I think it's important to show both the problematic parts and the good moments so that the reader can understand why the victim loves their partner so much and won't give them up. And that was missing in Criminal. Throughout the novel, I felt nothing but hatred towards Dee, what he puts Nikki through and how he treats her. I wish we had gotten some more insight into Dee as a person, to find out about his background and understand how he came to be this monster of a person. Of course it's important to show that his actions are completely unacceptable, but I still wish his character had been more complex so we could have understood him and his relationship with Nikki a bit better.

The prison setting is really well done. I can't judge how realistic it is (and don't want to!), but it definitely felt real. I loved reading about all those details that you don't really hear about, and it was great to see how Nikki's relationships with the other inmates develop.

Criminal is very different from Terra Elan McVoy's previous books. I loved her light, entertaining reads, but she does this darker story really well too. Criminal is a unique, gritty novel, and while it's a hard read, it's definitely worth it. I can't wait to read Terra Elan McVoy's newest, In Deep!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Bookish Anticipation #41

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.

The Distance Between Lost and Found by Kathryn Holmes
Release date: February 17th 2015
Ever since the night of the incident with Luke Willis, the preacher’s son, sophomore Hallelujah Calhoun has been silent. When the rumors swirled around school, she was silent. When her parents grounded her, she was silent. When her friends abandoned her … silent.
Now, six months later, on a youth group retreat in the Smoky Mountains, Hallie still can’t find a voice to answer the taunting. Shame and embarrassment haunt her, while Luke keeps coming up with new ways to humiliate her. Not even meeting Rachel, an outgoing newcomer who isn’t aware of her past, can pull Hallie out of her shell. Being on the defensive for so long has left her raw, and she doesn’t know who to trust.
On a group hike, the incessant bullying pushes Hallie to her limit. When Hallie, Rachel, and Hallie’s former friend Jonah get separated from the rest of the group, the situation quickly turns dire. Stranded in the wilderness, the three have no choice but to band together.
With past betrayals and harrowing obstacles in their way, Hallie fears they’ll never reach safety. Could speaking up about the night that changed everything close the distance between being lost and found? Or has she traveled too far to come back?

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
Release date: March 3rd 2015
Everyone knows Bone Gap is full of gaps—gaps to trip you up, gaps to slide through so you can disappear forever. So when young, beautiful Roza went missing, the people of Bone Gap weren’t surprised. After all, it wasn’t the first time that someone had slipped away and left Finn and Sean O’Sullivan on their own. Just a few years before, their mother had high-tailed it to Oregon for a brand new guy, a brand new life. That’s just how things go, the people said. Who are you going to blame?
Finn knows that’s not what happened with Roza. He knows she was kidnapped, ripped from the cornfields by a dangerous man whose face he cannot remember. But the searches turned up nothing, and no one believes him anymore. Not even Sean, who has more reason to find Roza than anyone, and every reason to blame Finn for letting her go.
As we follow the stories of Finn, Roza, and the people of Bone Gap—their melancholy pasts, their terrifying presents, their uncertain futures—acclaimed author Laura Ruby weaves a heartbreaking tale of love and loss, magic and mystery, regret and forgiveness—a story about how the face the world sees is never the sum of who we are.

I Am Her Revenge by Meredith Moore
Release date: April 7th 2015
She can be anyone you want her to be.
Vivian was raised with one purpose in life: to exact revenge on behalf of her mother. Manipulative and cruel, Mother has deprived Vivian not only of a childhood, but of an original identity. With an endless arsenal of enticing personalities at her disposal, Vivian is a veritable weapon of deception.
And she can destroy anyone.
When it’s time to strike, she enrolls in a boarding school on the English moors, where she will zero in on her target: sweet and innocent Ben, the son of the man who broke Mother’s heart twenty years ago.
Anyone…except for the woman who created her.
With every secret she uncovers, Vivian comes one step closer to learning who she really is. But the more she learns about herself, the more dangerous this cat and mouse game becomes. Because Mother will stop at nothing to make sure the truth dies with her.

Lies I Told by Michelle Zink
Release date: April 7th 2015
What if, after spending a lifetime deceiving everyone around you, you discovered the biggest lies were the ones you've told yourself?
Grace Fontaine has everything: beauty, money, confidence, and the perfect family.
But it’s all a lie.
Grace has been adopted into a family of thieves who con affluent people out of money, jewelry, art, and anything else of value. Grace has never had any difficulty pulling off a job, but when things start to go wrong on the Fontaines' biggest heist yet, Grace finds herself breaking more and more of the rules designed to keep her from getting caught...including the most important one of all: never fall for your mark.

Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff
Release date: January 27th 2015
A teenage boy tries to understand his best friend's suicide by listening to the playlist of songs he left behind in this smart, voice-driven debut novel.
Here's what Sam knows: There was a party. There was a fight. The next morning, his best friend, Hayden, was dead. And all he left Sam was a playlist of songs, and a suicide note: For Sam—listen and you'll understand.
As he listens to song after song, Sam tries to face up to what happened the night Hayden killed himself. But it's only by taking out his earbuds and opening his eyes to the people around him that he will finally be able to piece together his best friend’s story. And maybe have a chance to change his own.

Solitaire by Alice Oseman
Release date: March 30th 2015
My name is Tori Spring. I like to sleep and I like to blog. Last year – before all that stuff with Charlie and before I had to face the harsh realities of A-Levels and university applications and the fact that one day I really will have to start talking to people – I had friends. Things were very different, I guess, but that's all over now.
Now there's Solitaire. And Michael Holden.
I don't know what Solitaire are trying to do, and I don't care about Michael Holden.
I really don't.

What releases are you anticipating this week? 

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Get Happy by Mary Armato

Title: Get Happy
Author: Mary Amato
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Release date: October 28th 2014
Pages: 256
Genre: Young Adult contemporary
Source: NetGalley - I received a free advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Thanks!
Add to Goodreads | Purchase from Amazon
In this poignant, realistic, contemporary YA by a state master list star, perfect for fans of Sarah Dessen and Gayle Forman, a young songwriter builds a substitute family with her friends in place of the broken family she grew up with.
A hip high school girl who loves music, writes songs, and is desperate for a ukelele, learns to her shock that her father did not abandon her years ago and has been trying to keep in touch. She begins to investigate him, only to discover that he has a new life with a new family, including the perfect stepdaughter, a girl who Minerva despises.
My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Get Happy is a super-short read. It's only 256 pages, and the spacing makes it even shorter than that sounds. To add to that, we have Minerva's song lyrics at the end of most chapters, and the last of those 256 pages has those lyrics again, this time with the musical chords. So the good news is, it only took me like two and a half hours to read Get Happy. But the bad news, sadly, is that this short length means that nothing really happens, and nothing is as complex as I would like, making this a very underwhelming read for me.

The main storyline is the one about Minerva's family; her search for her father and the discoveries about her mother and all of their past. That storyline isn't bad... it's just nothing new; it's a very basic story that I've read a million times before. I found Minerva's reactions to all of this to be kind of melodramatic, to be honest; it might be just because I've read so many similar stories, or because Minerva reads so young (younger than the 16 she's supposed to be), but I didn't find what happened to be big enough to warrant such extreme reactions. I just don't think this is enough to carry the story. And with the strong focus on all of this, I found the developments towards the ending to be lacking: we never get to see what happens between her father and stepsister.

Minerva and her best friend Fin work at Get Happy, where they dress up as mermaids, pirates, etc. to entertain kids at birthday parties. That whole idea is cute, and some of those scenes are pretty entertaining. It's a bit contrived how the two of them, as well as the two other characters, Cassie and Hayes, always ride together and have to entertain parties at the exact same times, but it serves the purpose of showing how they all interact. This cast of characters has potential, but they're not complex enough to seem real, and nothing really happens between them either.

I'm not really sure what to say about Get Happy. It's not bad, and I didn't have many issues with it. But the thing is... nothing really happens. These storylines aren't enough to make for an engaging plot; they would have made a good background to set up a real story to focus on, but there is no such story. I know not every novel has to have a strong plot, but even as a character-driven novel, Get Happy didn't work for me; I didn't think the main character was complex enough or develops enough over the course of the story to make Get Happy work. Get Happy is targeted more towards the younger part of YA, so maybe it's just not for me, but I just found it very underwhelming.
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