Roomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando

RoomiesRoomies by Sara Zarr and Tara Altebrando
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

From the publisher:

When East Coast native Elizabeth receives her freshman-year roommate assignment, she shoots off an e-mail to coordinate the basics: television, microwave, mini-fridge. That first note to San Franciscan Lauren sparks a series of e-mails that alters the landscape of each girl’s summer — and raises questions about how two girls who are so different will ever share a dorm room.

As the countdown to college begins, life at home becomes increasingly complex. With family relationships and childhood friendships strained by change, it suddenly seems that the only people Elizabeth and Lauren can rely on are the complicated new boys in their lives . . . and each other. Even though they’ve never met.

I’m a huge fan of Sara Zarr and always read her books, but Tara Altebrando is a new author for me, so I went into this book with a mix of curiosity and excitement. It turned out that these two author’s voices work extremely well together, and the two of them wrote an engaging, fun, adorable novel about that weird time in life between high school and college.

Elizabeth and Lauren are very different people, and over the course of the summer they take the time to get to know one another through email, in the hope that when they begin living together it will be slightly less awkward. I had fun getting to know these two girls and the book brought back powerful memories for me of my own summer between high school and college. It’s such a unique time – full of anxiety, excitement, bittersweet feelings of leaving home for the very first time, all of that and more was captured in Roomies very well.

While the book had a premise that resonated with me and likable characters, I’m finding that I don’t remember a whole lot about it almost a month after reading it. So, I would say this is a very enjoyable read, but not one that really will stick with you. I did like that the last part of the book was just before they met for the first time in their dorm room, leaving it open to a possible second book about their time at college, which I wouldn’t shy away from reading. So, overall, good book but nothing that knocked my socks off.

The Maze Runner by James Dashner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner, #1)The Maze Runner by James Dashner
Published by Delacorte Press

From the publisher:

When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his name. He’s surrounded by strangers–boys whose memories are also gone.

Outside the towering stone walls that surround the Glade is a limitless, ever-changing maze. It’s the only way out–and no one’s ever made it through alive.

Then a girl arrives. The first girl ever. And the message she delivers is terrifying.

The first two volumes in this trilogy have been sitting on my bookshelf for what feels like forever, but it was a combination of it being a book club pick and the movie coming out soon that got me to finally read it. Overall, I was pretty impressed by this dystopian novel that is like nothing I’ve read before.

What’s different about The Maze Runner is that you know absolutely nothing about this world for pretty much the entire book, along with our main character, Thomas. Thomas and the rest of his new friends in the Glade (aka Gladers) have no memories of their time before the Glade, and they have no knowledge of what exactly their purpose is in the Glade. They think they have to figure out a way out of this huge maze, but they’re just guessing, really – and as the book goes on, it seems more and more likely that there’s no possible way out of the maze. And if they’re not supposed to get out of the maze, what could possibly be the point of their existence?

The reader, and Thomas, glean a little understanding of that very question by the end of the book, but things are left extremely fuzzy and there are still a ton of unanswered questions. At my book club meeting, we had a LOT to discuss because there is so much that you can speculate based on the lack of real information Dashner gives the reader about what’s going on here.

I thought that the pacing of the book was just perfect for this kind of novel. I couldn’t put the book down, anxious as I was to get some answers. I also liked Thomas as a character although it bugged me how quickly he figured things out in this world when it took the other Gladers forever just to get their bearings. I guess that’s just supposed to tell us that Thomas is special, somehow. Dashner did a good job developing his characters and creating very distinct personalities among all of these boys.

I liked The Maze Runner a lot and I definitely recommend it!

 

All Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner

All Fall DownAll Fall Down by Jennifer Weiner
Published by Atria Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

Allison Weiss is a typical working mother, trying to balance a business, aging parents, a demanding daughter, and a marriage. But when the website she develops takes off, she finds herself challenged to the point of being completely overwhelmed. Her husband’s becoming distant, her daughter’s acting spoiled, her father is dealing with early Alzheimer’s, and her mother’s barely dealing at all. As she struggles to hold her home and work life together, and meet all of the needs of the people around her, Allison finds that the painkillers she was prescribed for a back injury help her deal with more than just physical discomfort—they help her feel calm and get her through her increasingly hectic days. Sure, she worries a bit that the bottles seem to empty a bit faster each week, but it’s not like she’s some Hollywood starlet partying all night, or a homeless person who’s lost everything. It’s not as if she has an actual problem.

However, when Allison’s use gets to the point that she can no longer control—or hide—it, she ends up in a world she never thought she’d experience outside of a movie theater: rehab. Amid the teenage heroin addicts, the alcoholic grandmothers, the barely-trained “recovery coaches,” and the counselors who seem to believe that one mode of recovery fits all, Allison struggles to get her life back on track, even as she’s convincing herself that she’s not as bad off as the women around her.

Jennifer Weiner is one of my go-to authors – as soon as I know she has a new book out, I’m on it. It was obvious to me that I would read All Fall Down no matter what I heard about it, but the fact that I’ve heard nothing but good things didn’t hurt. I’m happy to say that this novel falls within the range of some of her very best books, and its darker, more serious edge makes it a little different from what she usually does. It’s always fun when a much-beloved author switches things up a bit, especially when the change is for the better.

When a book focuses almost exclusively on one main character, and that character makes deplorable choices, it can be tricky for an author to get the reader to connect to the character and make the reader interested enough in the character’s journey to keep reading. Well, apparently this is not very tricky for Weiner because she nailed it. While Allison is selfish and so deep in her addiction she barely registers the needs of those around her (including her own child), I couldn’t help but root for her to get better. Watching her self-destruct and spiral down into a haze of pain pills was heartbreaking but I continued to hope for the best and have the belief that she would eventually snap out of it and realize the damage she was causing to herself and everyone who loved her.

Another thing Weiner totally nailed is addiction itself. I know exactly how, to the addict, the only thing that matters is the next fix, how the addicted brain is convinced that if only you get one more fix, the next day is the day you will easily quit, easily give up the addiction for the happy life you are desperate for. But the next morning, you wake up, need another fix, and the cycle starts over again. Weiner completely got this. Allison’s life was a vicious cycle of taking too many pills, deciding to quit, and taking too many pills again.

Allison’s journey to healing was done so well, too. Addiction is messy and scary and sad and heartbreaking and Weiner got all of that, but she also got how hopeful and beautiful recovery can be. I believed in Allison, in her ability to get better, in the hope and promise that her future held, and I believed that she saw that too. She was incredibly realistic, which made her recovery that much better and more exciting for this reader.

All Fall Down is Jennifer Weiner at her best. Highly recommended.

More Than This by Patrick Ness

More Than ThisMore Than This by Patrick Ness
Published by Walker Books Ltd

From the publisher:

A boy drowns, desperate and alone in his final moments. He dies.

Then he wakes, naked and bruised and thirsty, but alive.

How can this be? And what is this strange deserted place?

As he struggles to understand what is happening, the boy dares to hope. Might this not be the end? Might there be more to this life, or perhaps this afterlife?

From multi-award-winning Patrick Ness comes one of the most provocative and moving novels of our time.

Who here loved the Chaos Walking trilogy and has been dying for something else from Ness that has that similar feel? *raises hand*

Well, you are in luck because More Than This is that book. This is a gorgeous novel about stuff that I don’t even want to tell you because that will just spoil it. But I will tell you that it has that same sense of urgency, that same OMG SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN feeling that runs through the entire Chaos Walking trilogy. Like all Patrick Ness books, this book is saying something, and by the end of the novel you will get it loud and clear. But to explain what, exactly, is happening here would ruin the experience. So I won’t.

Ness writes in such a way that causes the reader to truly feel the emotions the characters are feeling. He causes the reader to question his/her own life – how what we think and feel is filtered through our own limited experiences and how our memories are shaped not just by what happened but by the emotions we associate with those events. And he makes the reader wonder – how would we react and respond to a situation the characters in this book are faced with? Would we do the right thing or would we panic, save ourselves, and make choices with devastating consequences?

Please read this book. It is truly fantastic.

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles, #2)Scarlet by Marissa Meyer
Published by Feiwel and Friends

From the publisher:

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison–even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive. Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn’t know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother’s whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

I’m not sure how I feel about this series overall. Let me start by saying that I liked the first book, Cinder, but upon finishing it I totally forgot almost the whole thing. Which should tell you that maybe I didn’t like it as much as I thought I did? The fact that I barely remembered the events in the first book led me to take forever to get to this one, and it was rough in the beginning because of said lack of knowledge about events in the first book. Once I got into the vibe of Scarlet, and realized there are two storylines here, two main characters to root for, I got sucked in and really started to enjoy it.

Scarlet as a character interested me slightly more than Cinder had, she just seemed a little less naive and a slightly more of a kick-butt, sure of herself heroine. Although there are apparently tons of things neither of them understands or knows about, as they individually learn over the course of the novel. I liked the dual storylines because it kept me invested in both girls – just when one was getting kind of crazy, Meyer would switch over to the other girl, keeping me flipping pages, anxious to get back to that crazy part in the other girl’s life. It was a good storytelling device and I hope she uses it in the rest of the series.

But I don’t know – although the novel was certainly entertaining, I think these books are somewhat silly and now that I’ve finished book number two I can’t say I’m anxious to get to book number three, Cress. It’s like – I enjoyed it while reading but now that I finished the book, I’m kind of over it. I think someone would have to tell me that they get even better with the third installment for me to be interested in picking it up. Thoughts?

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes

One Plus OneOne Plus One by Jojo Moyes
Published by Pamela Dorman Books
Review copy provided by Netgalley

From the publisher:

Suppose your life sucks. A lot. Your husband has done a vanishing act, your teenage stepson is being bullied and your math whiz daughter has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can’t afford to pay for. That’s Jess’s life in a nutshell—until an unexpected knight-in-shining-armor offers to rescue them. Only Jess’s knight turns out to be Geeky Ed, the obnoxious tech millionaire whose vacation home she happens to clean. But Ed has big problems of his own, and driving the dysfunctional family to the Math Olympiad feels like his first unselfish act in ages . . . maybe ever.

One Plus One is Jojo Moyes at her astounding best. You’ll laugh, you’ll weep, and when you flip the last page, you’ll want to start all over again.

This is my third time reading a Jojo Moyes novel (but I do want to read her backlist, I swear) and every time I read one of her books, I’m in awe of her remarkable talent. I literally can NOT stop reading once I’ve started one of her novels. I don’t know what her magic is, exactly, just that she creates characters and situations and dialogue and relationships that are so incredibly easy to relate to and everything just clicks for me.

One Plus One is no different. I loved Jess and I couldn’t help but admire her tenacity and positive spirit, her belief that good people eventually get good things, and that if you just work hard, it will (some day) pay off. I wished she had been a little less naive about her husband – but it did match her personality, because if he’d been a bad person, he would eventually get what’s coming to him, right? In the meantime, she focused on what she could control – and that was being good to him and keeping things together for the children.

Enter Ed – a guy with issues of his own, a selfish person who has lived most of his life thinking only of himself. But for some reason, meeting Jess inspires him to act outside of himself for once and his inner nice guy rises to the surface. I liked Ed, too, but he frustrated me a bit, as he was naive about his own problems and had a lot of trouble taking ownership for the things he created in his own life. Still, it was enjoyable to see him finding his way and growing up emotionally to face the punishment that he rightfully deserved.

The story of how this unlikely pair, along with Jess’s two kids and dog, take a crazy road trip to Scotland is one you just have to experience to understand its beauty. Moyes is just as fantastic as ever and I absolutely loved this novel. Highly, highly recommended.

The Lovebird by Natalie Brown

The LovebirdThe Lovebird by Natalie Brown
Published by Doubleday
Unsolicited review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

Margie Fitzgerald has always had a soft spot for helpless creatures. Her warm heart breaks, her left ovary twinges, and Margie finds herself smitten with sympathy. This is how Margie falls in love with her Latin professor, a lonely widower and single father who trembles visibly in class. This is how Margie joins a band of ragtag student activists called H.E.A.R.T. (Humans Encouraging Animal Rights Today) in liberating lovebirds from their pet-store cages. And this is how Margie becomes involved in a plan so dangerous, so reckless, and so illegal, that she must flee her California college town, cut off contact with her dear old dad, and start fresh in a place unlike anywhere she has ever been. Introducing one of the most unforgettable heroines in recent fiction, The Lovebird is a novel about a girl who can’t abandon a lost cause, who loves animals, and who must travel to the loneliest place on earth to figure out where she really belongs.

From time to time I can be a shallow reader and decide to read books because of the cover alone – which is exactly what I did in this case. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from this gorgeous cover, and so I picked up the book and began reading, knowing exactly nothing about what I’d find within the pages.

Imagine my happy surprise upon learning how wonderful The Lovebird is! Admittedly, the beginning is a bit slow and Margie makes a lot of incredibly stupid choices that have enormously bad repercussions – sleeping with her professor only the first in a long list. What bothered me the most about her relationship with her professor was not the relationship itself, but it was that he had a young daughter, a girl who’d already lost her mother, and this girl was now getting emotionally attached to Margie, only to see her father’s relationship with Margie eventually come to its inevitable end – it was just sad! Don’t bring kids into something like that, people!

Anyway, that’s really only a small part in a story about Margie’s growth as a person and as a woman in a scary and confusing time in her life. She literally has to run from the law, and hide from the authorities in a remote Native American reservation, living among complete strangers, some of whom really, really don’t want her there. She’s a shy and quiet person who has gone through life latching onto people and causes and matching her own personality to those around her – and now, in this isolated town, she must find a way to become herself, to figure out what kind of person she wants to be in the world and work toward becoming that person.

The Lovebird is kind of a love story, but it’s more a coming-of-age story, and within its pages are sordid relationships, violence, animal activism, deep sadness but true reawakening of people’s spirits. This is a quiet novel but don’t let that scare you – there’s real depth of emotion here, real people figuring out life, as messy as that can be. And it’s very beautifully written. I really enjoyed it.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1)Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2)

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Published by First Second

From the publisher (Boxers):

China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.

Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers–commoners trained in kung fu–who fight to free China from “foreign devils.”

Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful. But nothing is simple. Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost? So many are dying, including thousands of “secondary devils”–Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity

From the publisher (Saints):

China, 1898. An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family when she’s born. She finds friendship–and a name, Vibiana–in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.

But China is a dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing, and bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie…and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

American Born Chinese was one of the first graphic novels I’d ever read, and it opened my eyes to the amazing way storytelling and illustrations can come together in this medium to create an incredible reading experience. Since then, I’ve read many more, but I always think fondly about Gene Luen Yang as he is literally the person who introduced me to the graphic novel – so I always pick up his books when I can. Boxers and Saints are two separate books, but in my opinion they must be read together – otherwise you’re only getting half of the story. I loved that he did these as companion books, as they are two very distinct books with their own characters and events, but they truly come together to complete the picture of this scary time in Chinese history.

I love Yang’s illustrations and these books were no exception to that. He is so detailed, so precise, to the point where the illustrations alone would tell the story if the text wasn’t there. His drawings are gorgeous and I could pore over them for a long time without even needing the words.

But the story itself is an important one. And by showing the Boxer Rebellion from both sides, he really illuminated the fact that in all conflicts, there is no right or wrong, necessarily. There are just people, fighting for what they believe in, for what they know in their hearts is true and what they feel desperately needs to be done. Both Little Bao and Vibiana showed me that their stories have value, their beliefs are real for them, and I just thought, how unfortunate and tragic that this conflict even had to happen in the first place.

What I love is when books make me want to do more research upon finishing them, and these books did exactly that. I read more about the Boxer Rebellion – something I knew almost nothing about – after finishing these books and can now say I’m more educated on this particular time in history. After learning more about it, I am even more impressed by the way Yang managed to combine facts with his own fictional spin on things, and actually want to reread the books armed with more background knowledge about the conflict.

Highly recommended! Graphic novels are awesome – do pick one up if you never have before, your eyes will be open to a whole new world of reading.

That Night by Chevy Stevens

That NightThat Night by Chevy Stevens
Published by St. Martin’s Press
Review copy provided by SheReads

From the publisher:

As a teenager, Toni Murphy had a life full of typical adolescent
complications: a boyfriend she adored, a younger sister she couldn’t relate to, a strained relationship with her parents, and classmates who seemed hell-bent on making her life miserable. Things weren’t easy, but Toni could never have predicted how horrific they would become until her younger sister was brutally murdered one summer night.

Toni and her boyfriend, Ryan, were convicted of the murder and sent to prison.

Now thirty-four, Toni is out on parole and back in her hometown, struggling to adjust to a new life on the outside. Prison changed her, hardened her, and she’s doing everything in her power to avoid violating her parole and going back. This means having absolutely no contact with Ryan, avoiding fellow parolees looking to pick fights, and steering clear of trouble in all its forms. But nothing is making that easy—not Ryan, who is convinced he can figure out the truth; not her mother, who doubts Toni’s innocence; and certainly not the group of women who made Toni’s life hell in high school and may have darker secrets than anyone realizes. No matter how hard she tries, ignoring her old life to start a new one is impossible. Before Toni can truly move on, she must risk everything to find out what really happened that night.

But the truth might be the most terrifying thing of all.

I was a huge fan of Stevens’ first novel, Still Missing, but was less than thrilled with her second, Never Knowing, and didn’t even bother with her third. So I have to admit that I went into this novel with a bit of trepidation. But I have to say, That Night really impressed me – she’s completely back to the place she was at for her first novel, and I might have even liked this one better than Still Missing.

The thing about this book is that you go into it knowing that you have an unreliable narrator on your hands. Toni’s past isn’t the best, she’s made some serious mistakes, and the love of her life, Ryan, could possibly be a shady character. We have Toni’s memories, which color everything in her favor, although she does admit to being somewhat of a troubled teenager, and then we have the people around her who assumed she and Ryan were guilty based on their preconceived ideas of what kinds of people they were.

Even though I knew I couldn’t trust Toni, I wanted so desperately to believe her from the very beginning. I just couldn’t let myself believe that she would do such a horrible thing and I had my fingers crossed throughout the entire novel for her to find the real killer and get the opportunity to clear her name. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether I could really trust her story or if she was playing me, the reader, for a fool the whole time. The book takes a ton of twists and turns and while I didn’t guess the ending, it was one of those “aha” moments for me and things finally clicked into place. It made so much sense and I loved how Stevens took me on this wild ride and delivered a shocking, but perfect, answer to all of the questions I had along the way.

I’m not sure that Stevens meant for this to happen, but That Night does an excellent job showing just how difficult it is for ex-cons to make any kind of lives for themselves after their sentences are over. Also, it illuminates the fact that once you are labeled something in life, it’s extremely difficult to get out from under that label and make something of yourself. Every single time Toni had something good going for her, her past would rear its ugly head and find a way to drag her down. People would frame her for things and accuse her of things, and immediately it was assumed she was guilty because of her past. It made me stop and think – this is how we treat people who have been convicted of crimes, or even suspected of crimes – crimes they may not have even committed. I know this is a thriller and not a social commentary, but it was a surprisingly interesting element of the novel for me.

Anyway, I was thoroughly impressed with That Night and I’m once again a fan of Chevy Stevens. Highly recommended!

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon

The Midwife of Hope RiverThe Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

From the publisher:

As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy’s only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor’s wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience’s secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.

 

A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.

After hearing Patricia Harmon speak at SIBA 2012, I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I got home. Unfortunately, I took way too many books home with me and then life got in the way and now it’s two years later and I’m finally getting to this one, the LAST of my SIBA books to read, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to read this one because it’s GREAT. This is the kind of novel that you can sit with for hours, wrapped up in a time and place completely different from your own, following the amazing Patience around as she goes through her days, saving lives and birthing babies. It’s incredibly interesting, engaging reading.

The star of this novel is the midwife herself, Patience Murphy. She’s compassionate, caring, and genuine, yet truly no-nonsense when it comes to dealing with women in labor and saving lives. She does exactly what she has to do in a matter-of-fact way to get the job done, and the work she does is so fast-paced to the point where sometimes there’s no time to show tender loving care. I loved the many sides of Patience – she has such a heart of gold, yet when someone attempts to get close to her she has a tendency to put walls up for fear of getting hurt. There are two people in this novel who eventually break down those walls – a friend who ends up becoming a roommate, and a potential love interest – and watching these relationships unfold was pure joy for me. I loved seeing Patience shed some of the pain from her past and open herself up to a potential future.

Patricia Harmon used her own extensive background and experience as a midwife to craft this story, and her knowledge and understanding of midwifery shines through. I’m sure that some of the situations Patience is faced with in the novel are exact things that happened to Harmon’s laboring mothers when she was a practicing midwife. The whole story just felt so genuine, it was crystal clear that Harmon really knows her stuff. 

The other thing I loved about this novel is how the history of the time and place comes through in surprising ways. Patience has to figure out how to navigate major racial tensions while tending to (and loving) black families, and eventually taking over for the only black midwife in the area. She has to fight against the KKK and deal with dire poverty – both her own and her patients’. There is a scene at the end where Patience is being attacked in her own home, and it is truly terrifying. To think that this was a reality for people not too long ago, and in some cases is still possible today, is eye-opening and very hard to think about. But I loved how Harmon used these issues as a background for the more pivotal story – that of the midwife and her work and life. It wasn’t an “issue” book – the issues were just there, just a part of Patience’s life.

I really enjoyed The Midwife of Hope River and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. If you’re like me and have been sitting on this title for a while, don’t wait any longer! It is truly an excellent book and I really, really enjoyed it.