Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau

Independent Study (The Testing, #2)Independent Study by Joelle Charbonneau
Published by HMH Books for Young Readers

Publisher’s summary:

In the series debut The Testing, sixteen-year-old Cia Vale was chosen by the United Commonwealth government as one of the best and brightest graduates of all the colonies . . . a promising leader in the effort to revitalize postwar civilization. In Independent Study, Cia is a freshman at the University in Tosu City with her hometown sweetheart, Tomas—and though the government has tried to erase her memory of the brutal horrors of The Testing, Cia remembers. Her attempts to expose the ugly truth behind the government’s murderous programs put her—and her loved ones—in a world of danger. But the future of the Commonwealth depends on her.

I really loved the first book in this series so I was anxious to get my hands on this, the second installment in what is a planned trilogy. I have no complaints about Independent Study – it fulfilled all of the hopes I had for the book and I loved it just as much as the first one.

I’m honestly going to pretty much stop there because if you’ve read the first book, I highly recommend you pick up the second one. If you haven’t read the first, there’s no point in me going over what I liked so much about the second one. If you haven’t started this series, you need to. There’s a kick-ass main character, a future world that is beautiful on the outside but is very sinister below the surface, lots of action and intrigue, and good writing. And NO LOVE TRIANGLE! So … what are you waiting for? Read this series! I have nothing further to say. :)

Me Since You by Laura Weiss

Me Since YouMe Since You by Laura Weiss
Published by MTV Books
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Sixteen-year-old Rowan Arena is a regular girl living the all-American teenage life when the decision of a complete stranger shatters her picture-perfect world. Suddenly she is plunged into a situation of uncertainty, grief, and most of all, fear. She doesn’t know how to deal with what’s just been thrown at her, and worst of all, her solid foundation and rock, her police officer father, can’t seem to handle it either.

Laura Weiss is another one of those YA authors, like Elizabeth Scott (who I love) who can so eloquently and beautifully write about really tough stuff for teens. I’ve read a few of her books and they’ve all been gorgeously written, with gut-wrenching emotional moments and characters that tug at your heartstrings – and Me Since You is another one to add to that list.

Something happens very early on in this novel that completely shatters Rowan’s world, and I will not spoil that for you, but what I will say is that it was completely unexpected, an out-of-nowhere thing that didn’t even effect her directly. Except that it did, and the fact that it did is sort of the point of this whole novel.

There is so much sadness, so much pain, in this book, and Weiss handled this awful situation with such grace and created a character in Rowan that the reader can’t help but feel deep empathy for. And in the midst of this awfulness, Rowan meets a boy who completely gets what she’s going through and is able to be there for her in a way nobody else can be – and this romance, while verrry slow, is truly perfect and such a light in this otherwise dark novel.

All I can say about Me Since You is that it is a YA novel that begs to be read. If you like books that pack an emotional punch, especially those that are well-written with great characters, this is one not to be missed. Weiss is another one of my favorite YA authors and in this novel she proved to me once again why I feel that way about her. Highly recommended!

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

Anna and the French KissAnna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins
Published by Dutton

When Anna Oliphant’s famous author father (think Nicholas Sparks) decides she should go to boarding school in Paris for her senior year of high school, instead of her public school in Atlanta, she is horribly upset and terrified of this huge change in her life. Surprisingly, Anna finds herself in a group of friends almost immediately upon arriving in Paris, and even more surprisingly, she becomes BFF’s with one of the guys in the group, the charming, intelligent, and gorgeous St. Clair. While she can’t stop herself from having a crush on him, she knows he has a girlfriend so she remains content with their friendship for most of the year. But when she starts to think he might be interested in her, too, she can’t help but think of how good they would be together …

I’ve been eyeing Anna and the French Kiss probably since it was released in late 2010 and bloggers began raving about it. Now that I’ve read it myself, I’m here to tell you that all that raving was justified – this is such a sweet, fun, charming, well-written and well-characterized young adult romance. It was everything I want my YA to be.

What I loved about this novel is that while the romance is a BIG part of the story, Anna’s own journey towards independence and learning she can grow as a person and do things on her own, can learn new things and experience a new culture, was just as important. She is the kind of character you can’t help but love – she’s smart, resourceful, honest, caring, but isn’t perfect, she makes mistakes, misjudges people, misinterprets situations, all the stuff regular people do on a daily basis. Her internal monologue is hilarious at times but also so very realistic and mirrors what real teens think and feel, how they deal with difficult situations, and how they process their emotions.

But the romance! So sweet. St. Clair is absolutely charming, so smart and so kind to everyone, the kind of guy you want the heroine to fall in love with. The way they were truly great friends for such a big part of the novel really worked for me – the romances that come out of nowhere can be fun, but aren’t very realistic. This one made sense, they fell in love over time, they truly knew each other and could appreciate little things about one another, it was just so sweet and perfect.

Anna and the French Kiss is a fantastic book in the YA romance category. I am kicking myself for waiting so long to read this book and I’m really looking forward to reading more from Stephanie Perkins. Highly recommended!

Every Day by David Levithan

Every DayEvery Day by David Levithan
Published by Knopf Books for Young Readers

Every morning, A wakes up in the body of someone different. A doesn’t have gender or a body of A’s own, but every day A is able to take on a new personality and new life, and then wake up the next morning and get a brand new one. A is okay with this and has learned over time not to form any attachments with people, to stay under the radar while inhabiting people’s bodies, and not to interfere with people’s lives. But everything changes when A wakes up in Justin’s body and falls madly in love with his girlfriend, Rhiannan. A wants to spend every possible moment with her, but how can that be possible when tomorrow A will wake up and be someone else?

This book has such a unique concept and before I began reading it, I was worried that I wouldn’t connect with this A person. Because A is a different person every day, each chapter requires the reader to learn about a whole new individual’s life. While that sounds like it would get confusing or overwhelming, it never does. As a reader, you actually come to see A as an individual – almost like a soul that is inhabiting these bodies for a day at a time.

Levithan writes teenage emotions so well. I truly believed, despite the unique concept of A not having a body of his/her own, that A and Rhiannan were in love. And while it sounds crazy that Rhiannan could love a different physical body every day, Levithan made me believe it was possible and true. I hung onto A’s every word and truly felt A’s pain as he/she worked so hard to find ways to get to Rhiannan and to make their love work.

This book made me think, too. Gender is SO socially constructed and so ingrained into my brain that it was really tough for me not to think of A as male simply because he was in love with a girl and because he was in a boy’s body when he fell in love with said girl. Even when he was in girl’s bodies, it was like in my mind he was a guy in a girl’s body. I am sure that Levithan came up with this concept to challenge people’s notions of gender and sexuality, and to make the reader examine one’s own thoughts on this subject, and this definitely happened for me. I’m still thinking about it and trying to understand my thoughts on A’s “real” gender – even though A doesn’t have a gender, it’s so outside of my mind to get the concept that not having a gender is possible. Like I want to put A in a box and categorize him somehow – I know Levithan is challenging the reader to think through this, and I appreciate it. But I’m still thinking.

I felt somewhat conflicted over the ending but as I’ve thought about it a lot, I have come to the conclusion that I liked it. Any other ending would have been unrealistic. While nothing about this book is very realistic, if you can suspend your disbelief to get to the ending, the way Levithan chose to end things makes the most possible sense, I think.

What I loved most about Every Day is how much it made me think. I loved the characters and I continue to feel that Levithan is a truly talented author, but I loved that I’m still thinking about this book weeks after finishing it. Highly recommended.

Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott

HeartbeatHeartbeat by Elizabeth Scott
Published by Harlequin Teen
Review copy provided by the publisher

Elizabeth Scott has a talent for writing YA books that deal with tough subjects in a delicate way, personalizing tragedies and showing them to the reader through the lens of a teenager.

Heartbeat is no different – in this novel we meet Emma, who is suffering from the recent loss of her mother. But her mother is not deceased, rather she’s being kept alive by machines after a tragic accident as she’s pregnant with Emma’s half-brother. Emma’s stepfather doesn’t care that her mother would never have wanted to be kept alive while brain-dead, he only cares about his son growing inside Emma’s mom. When she is at her most desperate and has no one to talk to, Emma meets bad-boy Caleb – a guy she never would have looked twice at before, but now that her life has been completely turned upside down, he might just be the person who can help her see through her grief and open her heart to the possibilities of life and love.

This book is full of heart-wrenching, grief-drenched moments that will take your breath away, but also soft and tender moments that will show you the meaning of true love and reconciliation between people at odds over the most fundamental of ideas. This is what Elizabeth Scott does so brilliantly and what I love so much about her books – this awful tragedy, this devastating situation that Emma is in, is something that’s been in the news and that real people have gone through, and she makes it so personal, so realistic. I felt that Emma was a real teenager, her struggles felt so true to me. Her stepfather, too, broke my heart – he was just trying to do the best he could for his family and truly was doing what he felt his wife would have wanted.

Of course we don’t know what Emma’s mother would have wanted – she’s not around to tell her side of the story. So we have to look at it from Emma’s point of view, and from her stepfather’s, and come to a conclusion that they are both right. They both want what’s best for this woman they love so much, this baby they hope might be born alive, and for their fledgling family they are struggling to hold onto.

And the relationship between Emma and Caleb was a perfect addition to this already beautiful novel. He made her see another side of things, another way of life and another way of looking at the world around her. He was exactly what she needed at a crucial time in her life, when everything else was falling apart, he was able to be a rock for her. It was sweet and melted my heart.

I loved this book! Elizabeth Scott is so talented, truly, if you aren’t reading her YA fiction you really should be. Highly recommended.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 2

And here are the final four books I read this year and haven’t reviewed.

The LowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri – I absolutely loved Lahiri’s short story collections and her first novel, The Namesake, so I was beyond excited for this one. The writing is just as gorgeous as I knew it would be, and she sure can tell a story about strained family dynamics. It gave me a glimpse into politics in India in the 1960′s, a place and time I know very little about. As I was reading, I felt deeply connected to the characters, to these two brothers who were so close as children but grew so far apart in adulthood. The novel is brimming with tragedies, but it never felt heavy-handed, it felt like a true family saga in which the family is struck with bad luck, bad choices, and inability to find peace. I loved The Lowland even though it didn’t quite live up to her earlier books for me – I still gave it five stars! That should tell you how much this author can do no wrong in my eyes.

Allegiant (Divergent, #3)Allegiant by Veronica Roth – This was one of my most highly anticipated books of this year and overall I did like it. I found the plot to be a bit meandering at times in the middle but the end was satisfying. A lot of people didn’t like the way Roth chose to end the series but I personally thought it was absolutely perfect. After closing the book, I just can’t imagine another way she could have resolved things for these characters. I’m really looking forward to the movie series now!

The Silent WifeThe Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison – This was a book club pick and one I would have read anyway because I was so compelled by the premise. I was expecting to be taken for a ride and I was not disappointed. The one thing everyone at my book club could agree on was that we hated all of the characters. They are selfish, immature, and have zero redeeming qualities to speak of. But despite that I couldn’t put this book down. I read furiously til the end, desperate to know how things would turn out for these despicable people. And the ending was a complete shock and was kind of genius actually. I really liked this one.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow (Marie Antoinette, #2)Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey – This is a sequel to a book I really loved (Becoming Marie Antoinette) but I have to admit that this one disappointed me. Marie Antoinette came across as incredibly selfish, spoiled, caring little for the people around her and only seeking out her own pleasure. She was so detached from the realities of life beyond Versailles that truthfully it disgusted me. I gained a bit more interest when she begun having children but overall this book was not what I was hoping for. The final book in the trilogy was recently released and honestly I’m not sure if I’ll ever get to it.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 1

Since my blogging pretty much slowed to a trickle these past few months, there are several books I never got around to reviewing. So here are some brief thoughts on four books I haven’t told you about yet. I’ll be back tomorrow with four more.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – This is nonfiction but it might as well be horror because it scared the pants off of me! Not that it’s “scary” in a traditional sense – it’s a book about a religion after all – but the way that this religion developed and grew and got so many people to follow it is terrifying to me. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and it’s mind-boggling to me that there are so many Scientologists in the world who actually believe everything L. Ron Hubbard taught. This book is incredibly thorough, the research Wright did is very in-depth, and the writing is excellent. For those interested in learning more about Scientology this is a book not to be missed.

The Sister SeasonThe Sister Season by Jennifer Scott (review copy from the publisher) – I decided to read this one because Jennifer Scott also writes excellent YA fiction under the name Jennifer Brown and I was hopeful that her talent for YA would carry over into women’s fiction. It did, to a degree, as I liked this book about three adult sisters who are forced to spend Christmas week together at their childhood home because their father has just passed away. I thought Scott did a great job with these characters and illustrating the way sister dynamics can be so complicated – these women have true love-hate relationships with one another, and I know that’s the way it is for a lot of sisters. But I didn’t love some elements of the story (to say what would be to spoil things) so overall I didn’t end up loving the book. It was like just not love.

The Space Between UsThe Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (review copy from SIBA 2012) – another book about sisters, this time it’s YA about Amelia (older, more responsible sister) and Carly (younger, wild sister) and a mistake Carly makes that have huge repercussions for both girls. I liked this one a lot and I think that Martinez can really write teenage girls. She truly gets them, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are unique to that period in a girl’s life. The dynamics between these girls were realistic and definitely accurate to real life – I connected with Amelia because as a kid, I was her, and I had a Carly as a sister too (different name, same personality). But there was a big reveal towards the end that I saw coming from miles away, which annoyed me. Overall I’m excited to read more from Martinez even though this book wasn’t perfect.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in AmericaFire In the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol – This book absolutely broke my heart, and gave me hope at the same time. I can’t recall ever having read another book by Kozol but I really need to start, as his approach to writing about poverty and education definitely speaks to me. It’s so alarming to realize that so many children in America have to live in atrocious conditions and then can’t even get the education they need and deserve in order to make a better life for themselves. I liked how Kozol showed readers both children who were able to get out of poverty and those who weren’t, and some who tragically died way too young. There is so much sadness in this book but also tiny slivers of hope that left me wanting to read more of Kozol’s work. I listened to the audio of this one and it was excellent.

Mini-reviews: The Moon and More & The Survival Kit

The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen
Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin

From the publisher:

Luke is the perfect boyfriend: handsome, kind, fun. He and Emaline have been together all through high school in Colby, the beach town where they both grew up. But now, in the summer before college, Emaline wonders if perfect is good enough.

Enter Theo, a super-ambitious outsider, a New Yorker assisting on a documentary film about a reclusive local artist. Theo’s sophisticated, exciting, and, best of all, he thinks Emaline is much too smart for Colby.

Emaline’s mostly-absentee father, too, thinks Emaline should have a bigger life, and he’s convinced that an Ivy League education is the only route to realizing her potential. Emaline is attracted to the bright future that Theo and her father promise. But she also clings to the deep roots of her loving mother, stepfather, and sisters. Can she ignore the pull of the happily familiar world of Colby?

Emaline wants the moon and more, but how can she balance where she comes from with where she’s going?

I’ve read every book Sarah Dessen has written, and generally I love her stuff. I definitely liked The Moon and More quite a bit, but unfortunately I typically expect to be blown away by this author and this book was just good enough – not the special brand of awesome I’ve come to expect from Dessen. The characters were great, though, really – Emmaline won me over with her drive, determination, and fierce love for her family, Theo was interesting and different and highly entertaining, and Luke seemed on the surface to be boring, but towards the end of the novel he really came to life and I ended up liking him quite a bit. Also, the picture that Dessen painting of the small beach town they lived in was so quaint and alluring, I wanted to go visit as soon as possible. The problem is that there are Dessen novels that I LOVE and this is just not one of them. But still a great YA novel, nonetheless.

Donna Freitas The Survival KitThe Survival Kit by Donna Freitas
Published by Frances Foster Books, an imprint of Macmillan

From the publisher:

When Rose’s mom dies, she leaves behind a brown paper bag labeled Rose’s Survival Kit. Inside the bag, Rose finds an iPod, with a to-be-determined playlist; a picture of peonies, for growing; a crystal heart, for loving; a paper star, for making a wish; and a  paper kite, for letting go.

As Rose ponders the meaning of each item, she finds herself returning again and again to an unexpected source of comfort. Will is her family’s gardener, the school hockey star, and the only person who really understands what she’s going through. Can loss lead to love?

Now, THIS book I loved. Rose’s pain is just so raw and real and tugged at my heartstrings times a million. I came to love her and root for her and truly hope that she would find a way to manage her grief and learn how to enjoy her life again. The romance between her and Will built up so slowly and in such a sweet way that I couldn’t stop reading their story. By the end of the novel I was truly in tears, crying with both happiness and genuine sorrow for Rose and her situation, and for how much she grew up over the course of the book. Truly, I loved this novel and it comes with a very high recommendation from me!

The Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

The Sea of TranquilityThe Sea of Tranquility by Katja Millay
Published by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

Ever since a terrible tragedy happened to Nastya Kashnikov two years ago, she has chosen not to speak and keeps everyone at a distance. She moved from her family’s home to her aunt’s, switched schools, and dropped all her friends in an effort to distance herself from her old life. But one person threatens to break through her tough exterior: Josh Bennett, a seventeen-year-old who’s been through what most adults can’t imagine, a boy whose entire family has died, leaving Josh a solitary, lonely person who thinks things are better that way. When these two begin to form a tenuous, fragile friendship, which eventually develops into something more, their lives are both forever changed.

The Sea of Tranquility is such a beautiful book, you guys. I think these characters came into my life simply to rip my heart out and stomp on it, then promptly work very hard to put it back together again. The novel reminded me a bit of the YA version of Me Before You (and you all know how much I LOVED that book).

Something Millay is genius at in this book is creating these incredibly flawed, hurting, but very real characters who, once you meet them, you need to get to know them better and learn even more about them. You want to fix their problems, help them see the light at the end of the tunnel, slap them for their bad choices but hug them when they regret those choices. I cannot express coherently enough how much Nastya and Josh crept into my soul and stayed there long after I finished reading their story. I loved them.

The Sea of Tranquility definitely deals with some serious stuff, but since it’s more about the characters than their issues, it never feels too heavy. There’s a lot of questions throughout the novel that Millay doesn’t answer until the very end, so the fact that you NEED to know more about what happened in the past definitely helps fly through the pages. There’s a sense of urgency and also a feeling of potential danger – like this precarious relationship Nastya and Josh have built over the course of the novel could come crashing down and shatter at any point – that propels the book along to its final conclusion.

For so many reasons, I loved this novel. Do yourself a favor and pick it up soon.

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau

The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Review copy received at SIBA

Malencia Vale is days away from her high school graduation, and is desperately hoping to be selected for The Testing at graduation day. The Testing accepts only the most intelligent and talented students to compete in a several-weeks long program to determine who among them will be selected to become future leaders of Cia’s society, the United Commonwealth. To her great relief, Cia is chosen for The Testing, and heads off to Tosu City. As her father participated in The Testing years ago, she brings his words of advice with her to what she hopes will be an exciting, although scary, process. What Cia finds is nothing like what she expected, as she embarks on the most dangerous and important journey of her entire life.

I didn’t pay too much attention to this title when it was featured at SIBA, mostly because I hadn’t heard of the author and, let’s face it, there are about a million YA dystopias these days competing for my attention. But I did see Charbonneau on a panel that week, and she was funny and bright and even sang opera for us! I later learned that she’s made a name for herself writing cozy mysteries (not my thing) but I’d heard from other bloggers that her writing is really quite good. So I figured, what the heck, and picked up The Testing just before its release date this week.

And holy shit! This book shocked me. It shocked me with how compelling, how completely unputdownable, how well-written, and how GOOD it was. I fell into the story immediately and felt that I knew Cia incredibly well after just a few chapters. The events that took place during The Testing were shocking, yes, but in just the right way – still almost believable.

This book reminded me a LOT of The Hunger Games, and I think a lot of people will have that reaction to it, which can be a great thing. But it might be seen as a negative, too, so let me tell you that I found the concept of this book to be much more believable than that of Hunger Games. Basically the premise is this: humans caused war and destruction for many years, mostly because the world leaders weren’t strong enough, or smart enough, or creative enough to prevent and/or stop it. So in this new world, the world leaders will be carefully selected and tested in the hopes of avoiding all that war and destruction that plagued the generations of the past. To me, this makes a lot of sense and I can actually see where there is some truth to it.

So, let me give you a quick run-down of why I loved The Testing. Creative concept? Check. Great characters? Check. Fast-paced, incredibly compelling story? Check. PERFECT ending that left me begging for the next book? Check. Basically, this was almost a perfect book to me and one that I won’t stop recommending. I’m super excited for this series and very hopeful that it will continue in its greatness or even (dare I say) get better. I would call this one a must-read.