Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Review: Since You've Been Gone by Morgan Matson


Title: Since You've Been Gone

Author: Morgan Matson

Rating: 4 Stars

The weakest part of Since You've Been Gone is its beginning. From the start, this novel feels all too much like an ode to a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Sloane. Our protagonist, Emily, is shy--she lives in the shadow of her best friend, Sloane, rather happily, content to follow in her footsteps and stretch her limits, but only just barely. When Sloane up and disappears in the beginning of the summer, Emily is lonely and lost--why did Sloane leave? So when Emily receives a list from Sloane, she's determined to finish it--to cross off every item on the list, no matter how scary--because maybe, just maybe, it will bring her closer to Sloane.

I really enjoyed this novel. Not as much as Matson's latest, The Unexpected Everything, but pretty darn close. Emily is the type of protagonist I can get behind--reserved, confused, but determined to push forward. I mention that the beginning of this novel is the most difficult to get through but that's because Emily is still a shell of a person. Not only is she fixed upon an idea of herself that is inexplicably linked to Sloane, but she remembers Sloane as a Wild Thing, full of life and light. I'm so tired of that romanticized Manic Pixie Dream Girl who seems to float through life effortlessly but is secretly hiding a deep pain. But, the story quickly changes direction, becoming more about Emily and less about Sloane.

It's easy for me to read this book with a heavy dose of disdain, only because I am no longer the shy, reserved teen I used to be. Perhaps if I had read this when it released two summers ago I would have been shocked and inspired by Emily's dares to go skinny-dipping or wear a backless dress. After two years in college, I am quite the different person and I found myself both sad that Emily--and Past Me, really--was so reserved and proud of the growth that Emily undergoes throughout this novel. She finally finds herself--who SHE is--without Sloane or anyone else to define herself by. It's so hard and so important to tear yourself away from the friends who "know" you and really know yourself on your own and I appreciate that Matson puts so much emphasis on that.

The friends Emily makes are unlikely, from class president Frank to his desperate-for-a-girlfriend cousin and Dawn, the girl who works at the pizza place around the corner from Emily's ice cream store job. Each of them shape her and motivate her in different ways and I always like how Matson's novels feature lots of time for growth and simple interaction. Emily's family is eccentric and her younger brother is daring and though she doesn't have any issues with them, I enjoyed how they were incorporated into the story in a meaningful way.

And, of course, the romance. Morgan Matson writes the perfect slow-burn romances and this one was no different. Frank and Emily start off as friends and they don't even realize when they begin to blur the line between best friends and something more. It's a little messy because Frank has a girlfriend, but fear not, the drama is minimal. What I enjoyed most about their friendship is that it's not just Emily who is re-defining herself this summer; it's Frank, too. We don't have as much of a insight into his psyche as we do Emily's but I really enjoyed how Emily went from thinking of Frank solely as class president or by his accolades and instead began to see him as a person.

My one qualm with this novel remains Sloane. We see her through Emily's eyes for almost all of this novel and she is painted as the classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl (as I've mentioned). By the end, though, there are a series of events that catapult us to learn more about Sloane--the full extent of her affection for Emily, her "secrets", why she moved, etc.--but I felt as if it was too much far too quickly. I wanted more time to process Sloane and her friendship with Emily before this novel abruptly cut to an end. Moreover, I felt as if there were a few dangling threads and while I can guess what would have happened, it would have been nice to get an epilogue or just a little something more after such a huge bomb is dropped in the last couple of chapters.

I think it's safe to say, though, that I've found a new fave in Morgan Matson. Though this isn't a favorite of mine, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would recommend it without hesitation. It's a thoughtful look into re-defining who you are and I'm sure that if I had read this a few years ago I would have been floored. Present Day Me is a little more mature and a lot more extroverted so while I can still appreciate this book, I won't be clutching it to my chest with tears. But, regardless of where you are in your life, give this one a try--I don't think you'll regret it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

'I Read YA' Week (Day 8): A YA Book Everyone Needs to Read

For those of you who have missed it, this past week has been Scholastic's annual 'I Read YA' Week! The fabulous team over at Scholastic invited me to participate in this event and today I am joining the campaign with one of their Daily Social Challenges, today's being a YA book everyone needs to read. 

As an avid reader, it's impossible for me to pick just one YA book I think everyone needs to read. Thus, I'm pulling out this photo of some of the YA books--and authors--I think everyone needs to read.
First up? Courtney Summers. Summers writes dark, gritty books that seep into your soul. They touch upon the viciousness of high school, the cruelty of teenagers, the darkness of grief, and the mad world that women are forced to navigate. I truly believe that anyone who picks up her novels will find something to relate to and it's impossible not to become caught up in her writing and the general atmosphere of her books. She is, by far, among the most under-rated and magnificent YA contemporary authors that we have. 

Next? Gayle Forman. I love Forman's If I Stay and Where She Went duology (and even her standalone I Was Herebut I love Just One Day and in particular, Just One Year, even more. I love that this duology is about travel and romance and finding yourself. The first book is entirely about Allyson, who spends a whirlwind day with a near-stranger she falls for and then discovers herself, changing her life in the process. The sequel is about what happens to that near-stranger and his path navigating familial expectations and the world at large, from different countries and corners to others. It's deeply moving and wildly inspirational. 

Finally, Maggie Stiefvater. My favorite Stiefvater novel is The Scorpio Races which is simply beautiful, but I think her Raven Boys series is a must-read. It's wonderfully compelling, the friendships and relationships tugging on heartstrings, and it's magically innovative. I read a lot of fantasy/supernatural novels and its unlike anything I've come across before. For me, more than the Raven Boys being a must-read, Stiefvater is a must-read; her books capture the teenage spirit in all its complexity so perfectly and her writing is sublime. 

I could wax poetry about a dozen other YA novels, but the ones I really believe everyone should read--and especially those who believe YA doesn't have much to offer--are the books written by Courtney Summers, Gayle Forman, and Maggie Stiefvater. What are the YA books you think everyone needs to read? I had such a hard time picking just these three but I'm always on the lookout for more recommendations!

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mini-Review: Flame in the Mist by Renee Ahdieh


Title: Flame in the Mist (Flame in the Mist, #1)

Author: Renee Ahdieh

Rating: 3.5 Stars
The only daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has always known she’d been raised for one purpose and one purpose only: to marry. Never mind her cunning, which rivals that of her twin brother, Kenshin, or her skills as an accomplished alchemist. Since Mariko was not born a boy, her fate was sealed the moment she drew her first breath. So, at just seventeen years old, Mariko is sent to the imperial palace to meet her betrothed, a man she did not choose, for the very first time. But the journey is cut short when Mariko’s convoy is viciously attacked by the Black Clan, a dangerous group of bandits who’ve been hired to kill Mariko before she reaches the palace. The lone survivor, Mariko narrowly escapes to the woods, where she plots her revenge. Dressed as a peasant boy, she sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and hunt down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love—a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.
Flame in the Mist is brilliantly written, expertly weaving court politics, intrigue, and adventure against the backdrop of a Japan with just the hint of magic. Ahdieh's novel is impossible to put down, though it really got going for me in the last third. Still, I love that the characters in this are so multi-layered and complex, the romance is complicated and swoon-worthy, and the personal growth of the main character is a sight to behold. I really appreciate that our protagonist, Mariko, is privileged and wealthy and grows to accept and acknowledge that privilege as she experiences more of the world and sees her own life through an outsiders perspective.

Yet, that being said, I felt like the first half of this novel predominantly featured Mariko insisting that she was intelligent and different, but never really proving or showcasing that. I like that she's a heroine who struggles to infiltrate the Black Clan because she isn't the most physically fit and, eventually, we do see signs of her intelligence take shape, but it takes awhile. As a result, I think I felt distanced from her, at least in part, and I didn't really get into this book until the second half. With Ahdieh's debut duo, I sank my teeth into her world and characters without a doubt, but this time around it took awhile. Nevertheless, I am confident the sequel is going to surpass this novel and I'm really looking forward to seeing where this story is headed. I want to see more of the magic I've seen hinted at in the novel and I definitely want to see all the court intrigue and politics intersect with Mariko's own story arc. Recommended, as with all of Ahdieh's novels.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Monthly Rewind: June

It's finally SUMMER! I love this season!!

3 Things About My Life This Month

1. I moved to D.C. and started my summer internship! The internship has been slow so far but I'm loving D.C., am meeting so many friends I haven't seen in roughly a year, and I really like my co-workers. I'm hoping to get more work to do and have a meatier project to work on as the summer progresses, but so far, so good.

2. The blog turned FIVE this month! I can't believe it's been five years!!! Thank you so much to everyone who has read my posts, commented, and supported me--whether you've been with my from the start, become my friend on Goodreads, or even just recently begun to follow me, I cannot thank you enough. I couldn't have continued this blog all these years without your support and I am so very grateful for everything.

3. I am in a reading slump. June has not been a good reading month, sadly. I discovered a new historical romance author and managed to fly through a bunch of romance novels, but any other books I tried to get into, I simply couldn't. I've also been oddly restless since I'm not traveling practically every weekend and that has me in a weird mood, just missing travel and wanting to do more of it and not being able to just sit and read. Hopefully July is better!

Best Book I Read This Month

I barely read anything this month, but it's a definite tie between these two historical romances. They both subvert typical gender norms, are delightfully amusing and heartbreaking in equal parts, and I highly recommend both these authors. Hoyt is new-to-me but I am already a fan and of all the books I've read of hers this past month, easily more than five or six, Notorious Pleasures is my favorite.

Most Popular Post

I loved this book and I'm so happy it was the most popular post I wrote this month. I really want more readers to get out of their comfort zone and pick this one up because it's funny and fantastically diverse but also unique and its plot will keep you up until you've turned the last page.

Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

I loved this book, so much more than I thought I would have, so I really hope more readers check this one out. It's so well-written and touches on subjects that often get left out of YA--interracial relationships, protagonists from poorer socioeconomic classes, etc.--and it's exactly what I look for in Contemporary YA.

Obsession of the Month

Grey's Anatomy! As many of you know, I'm a huge fan of both Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder, so is it any surprise that when I finally started Shonda's longest running series I loved it? I have been binge-watching this like crazy all summer and I love it. If I can finish all 13 seasons in the next two months is doubtful, but I sure am going to try. ;)

I also love that watching this in 2017 means that I find the show so diverse and progressive, but then I have to remember that these episodes aired in 2005/2006 and I am so impressed by the diverse cast, the emphasis on strong female role models and people of color and respectful relationships and discussions of trans issues. It's fantastic and I cannot recommend this show enough.

Top 3 Things I'm Looking Forward to Next Month

1. Fourth of July! I'm so excited to be spending 4th of July in D.C. this year! My roommates and I are going to attend the fireworks over the National Mall and I am sure it's going to be beautiful.

2. Family! I'm going to New Jersey for a brief visit the weekend before my younger brother's birthday and the weekend after, my family is coming down to visit me in D.C. for another short weekend. My grandmother just flew in from India so I'm mostly excited to see and spend some time with her but seeing family (and eating home-cooked food!!!) will be a nice change.

3. Friends! I've already seen so many of my close friends in the past three weeks I've been in D.C. but there are so many more I want to see and best of all, my closest and oldest friend is going to come and visit me for a weekend. There is so much to look forward to in July, just in terms of becoming closer to my roommates and re-connecting with so many of my past friends. It's exactly what I need, especially after being abroad for a year. :)

Any fun 4th of July plans? What were the highlights of your June? Any recommendations for books that can get me out of my slump? I'd love to hear in the comments below!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review: Ramona Blue by Julie Murphy


Title: Ramona Blue

Author: Julie Murphy

Rating: 4 Stars

Ramona Blue has been making internet waves well before its release date. A poorly written summary led readers to believe that Murphy's latest is about a lesbian who is "cured" by a straight male--that she finally meets the one guy who helps her see that she's been heterosexual all along! Well, let me put those worries to rest: Ramona Blue is not about homosexual-shaming in the least. In fact, Murphy's latest is a story of a young girl growing to realize that her sexuality is a lot more fluid than she originally thought it was--and a lot of other things in her life are, too.

Ramona has always known exactly who she is. She's been out of the closet as a lesbian since the 9th grade, she's always been by her older sister Hattie's side, and she's been working multiple jobs alongside high school just to keep afloat. Ever since Hurricane Katrina devastated her small town in Mississippi and her mother moved out--and stayed out--her family of three has been living in a trailer park, struggling to make ends meet. But now, on the cusp of Ramona's senior year about to begin, everything is changing. Her sister is pregnant and the father of the child, Tyler, has moved in to their already too-small trailer. Her summer fling, Grace, is not yet out of the closet and, to make things worse, she's returning home to her boyfriend an hour and a half away. And, Ramona's childhood best friend, Freddie, is moving back to Eulogy, Mississippi.

I loved this book. Ramona's voice is so easy to slip into and her group of friends is impossible not to love. Ramona Blue charts Ramona's entire senior year, from its beginning to its end, and her growth over the course of the novel is remarkable. I love that Ramona feels so comfortable in her skin and in owning exactly who she is. When Freddie moves back, their friendship bounces back after years apart and I loved watching as he integrated himself seamlessly into her life and just fit in. Ramona doesn't lead an easy life--she's constantly working and can't help thinking of what her life could have been like if Hurricane Katrina hadn't wrecked it--but she makes the best of it and has pillars of support that get her through the toughest of times.

I admired Ramona from the beginning, simply for her resilience and hard work, but I soon grew to care for her since she never bothered to care for herself. With her sister pregnant, Ramona is scurrying around to save money for the baby, help her sister get the prenatal care she needs, and is making plans for post-graduation--not to go to college, but rather to be there for her sister. It broke my heart that Ramona didn't see a future for herself past Eulogy, Mississippi and I wanted her so desperately to be selfish, just the once, and put herself ahead of her family. The family and friendship dynamics are all written so realistically, though, and I admire Murphy's sense of characterization--I despised Hattie for being someone Ramona was willing to give up her future for, but I also loved the bond between these two sisters.

Freddie also becomes a huge part of Ramona's life, mainly because his grandmother and him encourage her to begin swimming at the gym and become such huge sources of support for her. But, Freddie is not only a best friend to Ramona--he's something more. And that scares her. She's never had feelings for a guy before, but Ramona knows she likes Freddie--a lot--and her journey to accept that and figure out any new label she might want for herself is written with aplomb. I especially love Freddie. Not only is he a swoon-worthy love interest, but he's such a good friend and I adore that he's a good guy to the core. We need fewer "bad boys" in YA.

Ramona Blue faltered for me towards the end, when Ramona does a lot of quick growing up and makes a bunch of decisions about her future, all in the span of a few pages. I really needed to see Ramona put herself first, after being such a selfless friend and sister, and I didn't feel like I got that time with her to see her accept that it was OK to be selfish and have a future outside of Eulogy. I also really wanted more discussions of race. Freddie is black and he has a brief, but important, conversation with Ramona about how being black in the South is an experience she can never understand, but I totally wanted more of this. Murphy definitely sacrifices a few of these harsher conversations for a lighter novel, and she does do complete justice to Ramona's journey in discovering that she doesn't just like girls, but I do wish we had seen more of an explicit discussion of this, and even of privilege which is mentioned quite a few times but never spoken about by any of the characters. That being said, I was totally immersed in this novel from start to finish and surprised myself by how much I enjoyed it. I've never picked up anything by Murphy before, but this book just called to me and I'm glad I listened.