YA? Why not?!

avalavender

Title: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender

Author: Leslye Walton

Publisher & Release Date: Candlewick, March 25th, 2014

The Hook: This poignant, multi-generational not-really-YA-but-marketed-as-such debut is magical realism at its best.

The Lowdown (from Goodreads): Foolish love appears to be the Roux family birthright, an ominous forecast for its most recent progeny, Ava Lavender. Ava—in all other ways a normal girl—is born with the wings of a bird. In a quest to understand her peculiar disposition and a growing desire to fit in with her peers, sixteen-year old Ava ventures into the wider world, ill-prepared for what she might discover and naïve to the twisted motives of others. Others like the pious Nathaniel Sorrows, who mistakes Ava for an angel and whose obsession with her grows until the night of the Summer Solstice celebration. That night, the skies open up, rain and feathers fill the air, and Ava’s quest and her family’s saga build to a devastating crescendo. First-time author Leslye Walton has constructed a layered and unforgettable mythology of what it means to be born with hearts that are tragically, exquisitely human.

Overall Impressions:  I had the pleasure of experiencing this book last fall as part of a panel of booksellers who were reading middle grade and YA submissions by debut authors.  We all loved this book, but we all agreed: it’s not really YA.  With its generation-spanning storyline, multiple perspectives, and languid, magical tone, it doesn’t read like YA.  It’s debatable whether the teenaged Ava Lavender is even the “main” character.  However, all of the these arguments are moot when put up against the big question: Is it good? And it is.  Wonderful, even.  It’s the perfect crossover novel, in that it will appeal to older teens and adults alike, even those who don’t usually read YA.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender tells the stories of 4 generations of women, from Maman Roux, torn away from her French village to a filthy, turn-of-the-century Manhattan tenement, to her lovely, strange daughter Emilienne, who, after being thwarted in love and witnessing its dangerous effects on her 3 siblings, resigns herself to a loveless marriage with a baker named Connor Lavender.  Together, they travel to Seattle, where they open a bakery, and where Emilienne gives birth to her headstrong daughter Viviane.  As a teenager, Viviane gives birth to twins, silent and confusing Henry, and the astonishing, winged child, Ava.  Together, this family of misfits changes their small, insular community in unimaginable ways.

The Highs: Oh, where do I begin?  This book is beautiful.  The language, the imagery, the characters… all of it, wonderful.  But for the sake of specificity:

The language: If you hadn’t guessed from the title, Leslye Walton uses words beautifully.  Her descriptions are pefect: compelling, but never overly wordy.  Also, the multiple perspectives that she employs work perfectly: Ava’s story is written in a first-person perspective, but most of the book is written in third-person omniscient, which allows for intimate looks at the inner workings of the myriad characters.  And speaking of…

The  characters:  I love all of the Roux/Lavender women, but they make up only a small part of the beautiful cast that Walton has created.  The supporting cast of characters is remarkable, and their stories are related through wonderful vignettes.

The imagery: This book is suffused with magic, both natural and inexplicable.  Walton deals with the magic of food, of a mother’s love, of love dark and unrequited, as well as the literal magic of a girl born with wings, and of ghosts and spirits.

Buzzkills:  For me, personally, I felt like the book was too short, and I wonder if perhaps that was the fault of the rewriting that preceded it being shopped as a YA novel, rather than the adult novel it was originally written to be.  It’s only 360 pages [ETA: the finished version is only 301 pages!], and I would have happily read twice as much if it meant that I got more insights into the lives of Walton’s characters.

Also, and this is the biggie, this book has some dark and disturbing imagery.  There’s some pretty awful violence and a truly horrifying rape sequence.  It’s these, along with the generally adult tone of the novel, that would make me hesitate to put it in the hands of a younger teen.

The Source: Advance copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor French pastries were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

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This Beauty is kicking ass and taking names

Cover art for Cruel BeautyTitle: Cruel Beauty

Author: Rosamund Hodge

Publisher & Release Date: Balzer and Bray/HarperTeen, January 28th, 2014

The Hook: Taking Beauty and the Beast back to the myth of Cupid and Psyche, this thrilling fantasy features a kick-ass heroine, an intriguingly constructed world, and some sizzling romance.

The Lowdown (from Goodreads, because I hate the jacket description SO MUCH): Based on the classic fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Cruel Beauty is a dazzling love story about our deepest desires and their power to change our destiny.

Since birth, Nyx has been betrothed to the evil ruler of her kingdom-all because of a foolish bargain struck by her father. And since birth, she has been in training to kill him.

With no choice but to fulfill her duty, Nyx resents her family for never trying to save her and hates herself for wanting to escape her fate. Still, on her seventeenth birthday, Nyx abandons everything she’s ever known to marry the all-powerful, immortal Ignifex. Her plan? Seduce him, destroy his enchanted castle, and break the nine-hundred-year-old curse he put on her people.

But Ignifex is not at all what Nyx expected. The strangely charming lord beguiles her, and his castle -a shifting maze of magical rooms- enthralls her.

As Nyx searches for a way to free her homeland by uncovering Ignifex’s secrets, she finds herself unwillingly drawn to him. Even if she could bring herself to love her sworn enemy, how can she refuse her duty to kill him? With time running out, Nyx must decide what is more important: the future of her kingdom, or the man she was never supposed to love.

Overall Impressions:  I was prepared to hate this book.  The jacket text and illustration screamed “TWILIGHT KNOCKOFF”.  But I got sucked in so quickly.  I liked Nyx almost instantly, even though she’s angry and bitter, and makes a lot of bad decisions.  It was the amazing world-building, though, that really won me over.  Hodge creates a world where Great Britain was magically cut off from the rest of the world during the age of the Roman occupation.  Magic clashes with science, and the author offers a fascinating look at what 19th-century British society might look like if the Romans had never left and Continental politics hadn’t influenced British culture.

The Highs: As I said, I liked Nyx a lot. She’s impulsive, and deeply pissed off (and who wouldn’t be, in her shoes?), but she’s likable nonetheless.  And Ignifex is your classic sexy, misunderstood “bad boy” love interest, with a lot of fun twists.  I also loved the elaborately-crafted world that the characters lived in.  It felt as detailed as a Bruegel painting to me, with lots of surprises and hidden corners, and pieces of a puzzle that all come together at the end.  But my favorite thing about the book might have been the mythology that Hodge worked with.  If you’re not familiar with the myth of Cupid and Psyche (and Pandora, as well), read up on them first in order to fully appreciate the story.  Cupid and Pysche form the basis for Beauty and the Beast, and Hodge did a wonderful job of weaving the myth and the fairy tale together to make something original and new.

Buzzkills:  This buzzkill is less of a problem with the story itself than a problem of different perceptions, but here goes: I discussed the story with another early reader, who complained that she was uncomfortable with the book because it was, and I quote, “rape-y”.  Not because there’s any actual rape in the book (there absolutely isn’t), but because Nyx is not initially a completely willing participant in the marriage, even though there is no actual consummation of said marriage until much later, after her feelings have changed.  Now, I think the argument can be made for being uncomfortable with situations where a captive is brainwashed into feeling sympathy and even love for her captor, because that is a pretty screwed-up scenario, but that’s not the case here.  If you’re at all familiar with the Beauty and the Beast storyline, you know that already.  What I really objected to was the use of the term “rape-y”.  Because rape either is or isn’t.  Rape is someone being forced into sexual contact against their will, or in a situation where they can’t willingly and knowingly give consent.  Rape happens, and it’s awful, and using words like “rape-y” to describe situations that make us uncomfortable does nothing to help people who are actually dealing with the impact of rape. And using it describe a book is just plain silly.  But, that being said, if you’re uncomfortable with books that include a shifting balance of power between two people sharing a sexual relationship, avoid this story.

The Source:  Advance Reading Copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate nor the tools of assassination were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Fangirl; or, Why I want Rainbow Rowell to be my BFF.

Title: Fangirl

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Publisher & Release Date: St. Martin’s Griffin, September 2013

The Hook: Everything Rainbow Rowell writes is gold.  Seriously, her grocery lists are probably magical.  She’s quickly becoming my favorite YA author; I’ve been calling her “the girl John Green” for awhile now.  Strong words, I know, but she’s just that great.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Cath doesn’t think she’s good at life – but she’s really good at being a fan.  She’s been writing fanfiction since she was twelve, and she’s gotten kind of famous in that world.  But college is another “story”.  She’s got a mean roommate (with a too-friendly boyfriend), her twin sister’s ignoring her, her dad’s a mess, her writing professor is pushing her too hard… She keeps having to rise to the occasion, but all she really wants to do is stay in her room and write.  Is Cath ready to live her own life, write her own stories, and open her heart to someone?  Or will she just go on living insider her fictional world?”

Overall Impressions:  Based on the description of this book, I went in with low expectations.  Sure, “Eleanor & Park” was amazing, but I wasn’t sure that the “awkward girl who writes fanfiction” storyline was going to work for me.  Silly me.  I should have known that in Rainbow Rowell’s capable hands, even the most banal plot could become something poignant, raw, and funny.  As with all of Rowell’s books, “Fangirl” is painful, exhilarating, and impossible to put down.

The Highs: I would say “everything”, but that would make this a short review, so I’ll elaborate:

I love Cath.  I expected to find her irritating (she writes homoerotic fanfiction about a Harry Potter-esque character, for Pete’s sake), but she was written with such honesty and depth that I couldn’t help but feel for her.  Her social anxiety and obsessive behaviors were incredibly realistic and heartbreakingly familiar.

Levi.  Oh, Levi.  He might just be my newest fictional boyfriend.  Kind, genuine, enthusiastic, flawed in the most endearing ways… and the way he calls Cath “Cather”?  I die.  Every time.

Regan, Cath’s hard-as-nails-with-a-heart-of-gold roommate (and also Levi’s BFF) is probably my favorite character in the book.  She’s the friend we should all have, the person who will give it to you straight in any situation and defend you to the death.  I adore her.

I also loved Cath’s dad, and his own struggles with mental imbalances.  Again, Rowell approaches mental illness with honesty and sensitivity, never caricaturing the behaviors but portraying characters holistically, with their mental quirks, however debilitating, being simply a part of the whole person.

Buzzkills:  For me, there wasn’t a whole lot not to like here.  The characters who were less than sympathetic (Cath’s twin Wren, a certain boy with whom Cath collaborates on a project) were believable and nuanced enough to make me forgive them their flaws (well, not the boy’s, but he doesn’t deserve my forgiveness, damn it).  There was also a scene with one of Cath’s professors that was absolutely mortifying to read, but again, this is how Rowell writes.   The agony is part of the ecstasy.

The Source: Advance Reading Copy from the publisher.

Disclaimer: Neither chocolate or invites to college parties were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

First love is always the sweetest

eleanor and park

Title: Eleanor & Park

Author: Rainbow Rowell

Publisher & Release Date: February 2013, St. Martin’s

The Hook: Two outcasts fall in love against a backdrop of comic books and New Wave music in this bittersweet romance.

The Lowdown (from jacket): “Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.”

Overall Impressions:  This is Rainbow Rowell’s YA debut, and reading it, I found myself wondering, again and again, “Where was Rainbow Rowell when I was a teenager??”.  This is one of the most heart-poundingly romantic, gut-wrenchingly sad stories that I’ve ever read, and it place Rowell firmly in the ranks of John Green and Laurie Halse Anderson as one of the best authors of realistic YA fiction writing today.

When we first meet Eleanor, she is struggling.  She has just moved back in with her mother, siblings and stepfather after spending a year sleeping on a neighbor’s couch.  Her family is poor (due more to her abusive stepfather’s desire to control everyone than to an actual absence of funds), and Eleanor has virtually nothing that she can call her own.  If these factors weren’t enough to make her an outcast at her new school, her plus-size frame, wild red hair and eccentric sense of style do the job.

Park hasn’t suffered as much as Eleanor, but he is still distinctly out of place in his blue-collar community.  Half-Polish, half-Korean, with a penchant for New Wave music and guyliner, his appearance sets him apart, and he is content to keep his head down and avoid attracting the kind of attention that would mean trouble.  When too-big, too-bold Eleanor shows up on the school bus one day, he takes pity on her and gives her a seat, but he wishes that she was smaller, less conspicuous, less of a target, and he doesn’t want her problems to become his own.

Eleanor keeps sitting with him, and over time, he starts to share his comic books and music with her.  Despite their differences, they find common ground.  Park learns to respect Eleanor’s fiery strength and intelligence, and Eleanor comes to appreciate Park’s wit and kindness.  A fierce and tender love blossoms between them, but with the barriers of family and prejudices that threaten to separate them, can their love possibly survive where most first loves fade?

The Highs: Where do I begin? This is one of those rare books that I appreciate more the more I examine it.  To start with, Rowell’s writing is like poetry.  The amount of pulse-pounding lust, love and tenderness that she manages to inject into a description of hand-holding, for instance, has to be read to be believed.  This is, hands down, one of the most romantic books I’ve ever read, and it manages to avoid almost all of the usual pitfalls of YA romance.

The characters are marvelous.  Eleanor is someone I’d want as a best friend, a teacher, a mother, a confidante.  She is strong without being invulnerable, prickly but affectionate, smart and so brave.  The abuse that she faces from her family and classmates would destroy me, but she perseveres in a way that it both remarkable and realistic.  Park is also delightful, and the way his love for Eleanor grows is so touching and believable.  Park’s parents are possibly the best YA fictional parents EVER; at first they came across as kind of overbearing, but they ended up being so wonderful in their decisions to support Park, even when they didn’t understand him or his motivations.

Most of all, I loved this book for making me feel ALL THE FEELINGS.  Rowell manipulated my emotions so deftly, and made me care so deeply about the fate of the dual protagonists.  It’s rare that I find a book that engages me on this level.

Buzzkills:  This book is a hard read, emotionally speaking.  Abuse, neglect, racism and body image issues are all touched upon. The level of cruelty that Eleanor faces at the hands of her stepfather had me crying with rage at several points in the story.  Possibly worse than her stepfather’s abuse is her mother’s emotional neglect, her unwillingness to recognize what she is putting her children through just so she can be “loved”.  Even the more positive relationships, like Park’s with his parents, are tinged with that mutual lack of understanding that characterizes so many teenage transactions.  Being a teenager is tough business, and this book brings back all of the pain, awkwardness and despair of those years.

The Source: ARC from Indiebound

Disclaimer: No chocolate or mixtapes were provided by the publisher in exchange for this review.

Go on and take it

Title: Another Little Piece

Author: Katy Karyus Quinn

Publisher & Release Date: Harper Teen, June 2013

The Hook: When a teenage girl stumbles out of the woods hundreds of miles from her home and a year after she was last seen, all she knows is that she is not the person everyone believes her to be.

The Lowdown: Annaliese Rose Gordon was last seen at a party, screaming and covered in blood. She disappeared moments later.  When she turns up in an Oklahoma trailer park almost a year later, with a horrible scar and no memory of what happened to her, her loving parents do their best to to make things as normal as possible for her.  But nothing feels normal to Annaliese.  She feels no connection to the people who are supposedly her parents.  Her home is unfamiliar, her favorite foods don’t appeal to her, and she feels no attraction towards the boy who she was once crazy over.  The memories that slowly begin to come back to her seem to belong to a different person altogether.  With the help of a neighbor, poems written by the old Annaliese, and an ominous presence from her past, she begins to piece together a picture of the horrific, violent act of dark magic that shattered her previous existence, and that threatens to destroy even more lives if she doesn’t stop it in time.

Overall Impressions: I didn’t know what to expect from this book.  I picked it up on a whim, and was almost dissuaded by the atrocious cover (which, incidentally, has approximately NOTHING to do with the story).  But oh, was I ever pleasantly survived.  The story was well-paced, creepy and wonderfully original, despite borrowing elements from myths and fairy tales.  The terse, present-tense narrative kept me engaged, and the tough-as-nails protagonist quickly won me over.  Although some of the pieces of the puzzle that is Annaliese’s disappearance and return fall into place quickly, there were plenty of details that kept me guessing till the end.  I really liked the way Quinn paced her reveals; this was one of those books that I couldn’t put down because I simply HAD to know what question would be answered next.  I also love the mythology that Quinn created for this book.  The comparisons she’s gotten to Stephen King, while a bit premature, are not entirely unfounded; she seems to have some of his talent for pulling together bits and pieces from numerous sources and doing something new and interesting with them.

The Highs: In addition to all of the above details, there’s a strong streak of feminism in Quinn’s writing that I really appreciated.  This is not a damsel-in-distress story.  This is a damsel-kicking-ass-and-taking-names story.

Buzzkills: *sigh* There’s poetry in this book.  It’s not awful, as poetry in YA novels goes, but that’s not saying much.  Although it serves to further the story, I just don’t want to read poetry written by fictional teenage girls.  Ever.  Poetry written by real teenage girls is plenty bad enough.

Also, I would have loved to have seen some of the invented mythology developed a little further.  I recognize that the pace and perspective didn’t always leave room for all the details that I might have wanted, but I really hope that Quinn writes a sequel or companion novel that delves a little deeper into the forces at work in the story.

The Source: Advance Copy from the publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or love spells were provided by the publisher for this review.

Beauty ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Title: Gorgeous Cover of Gorgeous by Paul Rudnick

Author: Paul Rudnick

Publisher & Release Date: Scholastic, April 2013

The Hook: This poignant, satirical and uproariously funny modern-day fairytale skewers our collective obsession with beauty and celebrity.

The Lowdown: Eighteen-year-old Becky’s life is going nowhere until the day her morbidly obese mother dies in the trailer that they share.  As she sorts through her mother’s things, the phantom ringing of her mother’s cellphone leads her to a card with a phone number printed on it.  When she calls the number, her life is turned upside down.  She is whisked away, first-class, to New York, to meet with Tom Kelly, the world’s most famous designer.  Tom shows her that her mother was once stunningly beautiful, one of his muses, and because of this connection, he offers to make Becky three dresses that will transform her into the most beautiful woman in the world.  She takes him up on his offer (who wouldn’t?!), and Tom and his team of sartorial magicians turn plain Becky into stunning, elusive Rebecca, a woman no one can resist.  Rebecca is perfect, and everyone wants a piece of her.  She poses for magazines, stars in a hit movie, and rubs elbows with the rich and famous.  When she meets Prince Gregory, the heir to the British throne, she begins to see a purpose for her staggering beauty.  But when the clock strikes midnight on the spell that keeps Rebecca beautiful, Becky is forced to face the truth about who and what she is.

Overall Impressions: I started laughing on page one, but the hilarity alternates with some pretty heart-wrenching sadness. I love love LOVE Becky’s voice; she’s snarky and vulnerable, scared but resilient, all things that make for a lovable heroine.  This was a fun, sparkling read that had a little bit of everything: satire, fairy-tale romance, even haute couture.

The Highs: Okay, this might be a buzzkill for some, but I got such a kick out of the swearing in this book.  The cursing is constant and creative.  Becky’s best friend Rocher puts together some compound swears that would put a sailor to shame.  Rocher herself is another high for me.  She’s the perfect sidekick: supportive, down for anything, and more than a tiny bit crazy.  I also loved the magic in this book.  It’s unexpected, touching, and rather lovely

Buzzkills: See above re: swearing.  If f-bombs bother you, you probably won’t make it past the first page.

The Source: Advance Reader Copy from publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or shiny things were provided by the publisher for this review.

Aliens and mayhem and fascism, oh my!

intheafter

Title: In the After

Author: Demitria Lunetta

Publisher & Release Date: Harper Teen, June 2013

The Hook: You had me at aliens, but it was the smartly-written dystopia that really won my heart.

The Lowdown: Amy is an average teenager until the day They arrive.  In the blink of an eye, she’s left all alone as humanity is decimated by monsters straight out of a nightmare.  Thanks to her parents’ foresight and her own intelligence, she has the skills and tools necessary for her survival, but it’s not till she rescues an abandoned toddler that she finds a reason to keep on living.  She and Baby, as she names the girl, live relatively comfortably in their little fortress until a stranger breaches their defenses.  Miraculously, they survive long enough to be picked up and taken to New Hope, a community that promises to beat back the invading horde and rebuild humanity.  But New Hope has its own dark corners, and Amy’s unanswered questions about her new home and those who control it lead her to a terrifying discovery.

Overall Impressions: Just when I was ready to give up on dystopias for awhile, this fabulous book came along and restored my faith in YA lit’s ability to imagine truly chilling futures for society.  This dystopia was written on a small scale, but it was sharp and frighteningly believable.  I found myself thinking, more than once, “This is EXACTLY what would happen in this situation!”.  I loved Lunetta’s descriptive-but-straightforward style, and while I didn’t always like Amy, I had a lot of respect for her by the end of the book.   I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting for the sequel.

The Highs: I’m a sucker for aliens, and Lunetta’s aliens were as creepy as could be.  The swiftness and brutality of their invasion was frighteningly realistic, as were the effects on humanity’s surviving members.

Buzzkills: It only enhanced the story for me, but be warned that the violence in this book is pretty graphic, and the descriptions of the invasion and its aftermath are brutal.

The Source: Advance Reader Copy from publisher

Disclaimer: No chocolate or shiny things were provided by the publisher for this review.