Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Review: The Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

Title: The Unexpected Everything 

Author: Morgan Matson

Rating: 5 Stars

I have a confession to make: I didn't expect to enjoy Morgan Matson's novels. I know, I know--how could I make a judgement like that without ever picking them up? But something about Matson's novels screamed "summer" and "contemporary" and somehow a little too...young? But I was really in the mood for a fun, contemporary summer romance so I gave The Unexpected Everything a shot and, color me surprised, I found a new favorite novel. I genuinely loved this book. It had everything I look for in my most cherished novels--a complex parental relationship, a prickly heroine who didn't always do the right thing, a tight-knit group of friends who grew and changed, and a slow-burn absolutely swoon-worthy romance. All against the backdrop of a sticky, hot summer and I wound up reading this with my window open, droplets of rain brushing my ankles as I stayed up late finishing this novel. 

As the daughter of a Congressman, Andie has grown up in the spotlight. Whether it be a new campaign or a speech or the funeral of her mother, Andie has been photographed through it all. This summer, though, she's about to do something for herself--attend a prestigious pre-med program for high school students in Johns Hopkins. But when a scandal is uncovered in her father's office, Andie's recommendation letter is withdrawn and she suddenly finds herself with no summer plans. Not only is her father home for the summer--taking a leave while an investigation is conducted in his office--but Andie now has to spend quality one-on-one time with her father for the first time in five years, since her mother's death. For Andie, the girl who always has a plan, living each day uncharted has never come easy. But maybe this summer, she'll discover more than she thought...about herself, her passions, and her father, too. 

For me, the best aspect to this novel is Andie's relationship with her father. It clearly isn't easy for either of them to be such a huge part of one another's lives this summer. Andie's father has been so dedicated to his job that he barely knows anything about Andie's life. Andie, similarly, has been managing on her own for so long that she can't handle having a curfew or a father who interrogates her dates. While these two begin the summer on a rough path, I really enjoyed seeing as they both made efforts to get to know one another. I loved their banter, the way Andie's father made himself a part of her life, and the manner in which they slowly began to move on from the grief they experienced over her mother's death--together. In fact, I think theirs is one of my all-time favorite fictional father-daughter relationships. 

Another huge part of this novel, though, are Andie's friendships. Andie is best friends with Palmer--who is dating a theater geek Tom--and Toby and Bri. Toby and Bri are best, best friends and have been since kindergarten. Though the four of them are a unit, Toby and Bri are together almost all of the time and their lives are so overlapped that half of their school gets the two of them confused. Toby is a romantic, determined to get her rom-com happily-ever-after while Andie treats relationships as three-week flings during which she has to sit patiently through the date to finally be able to make-out with the guy. The four of them are so different but I loved reading their group texts and watching as they made their summer a magical, entirely exciting experience. They've always got one another's backs and they talk about everything, from their families to their boy troubles and I loved that. This book definitely passes the Bechdel test and though their tight-knit friendship goes through its hurdles, I thought it was such a realistic dilemma and was handled in such a mature manner. I love a bittersweet, but realistic ending and that's exactly what this gave me. 

Of course, I can't not talk about the utterly adorable romance within these pages. Clark is nervous and shy, a fantasy author who falls for Andie and takes her on a disastrous first-date that neither of them enjoy. Where Andie avoids talking about herself, Clark pushes her to open up and Andie, who is closed-off and never lets any guy get "in", immediately shuts down. But somehow, Clark gets past Andie's defenses and their love story is just too cute. Clark has been home-schooled all his life and Andie pushes him out of that bubble, introducing him to her friends and her father and giving him a summer of memories he won't forget. On the other hand, Clark makes Andie comfortable enough to open up about her life--her father, her mother, her friend group--and for the first time in her life, Andie finds herself in a relationship lasting longer than three weeks. It's such a healthy, equal relationship and though it has its ups and downs, I really loved watching it unfold. I especially enjoyed that Clark wrote fantasy and his passion for writing is just as evident as Andie's passion for medicine or animals. Andie and Clark push each other to become their best version of each other and I loved that--not to mention I fell for Clark and his dimples so, so hard. 

The Unexpected Everything was such a lovely, unexpected surprise. I genuinely didn't expect to find my next favorite of 2016 when I picked this up but now all I want to do is re-read it. I can't recommend this enough to anyone looking for a realistic, mature, and romantic summer read. It's a contemporary YA that's cute, sure, but it's also deep and talks about sex and changing friendships and familial relationships. It has so much to offer and I can't wait to pick up Matson's other novels. I only hope they wind up being unexpected surprises too!

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Review: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

Title: A Court of Mist and Fury (A Court of Thorns and Roses, #2)

Author: Sarah J. Maas

Rating: 4 Stars

Note: There are mild spoilers for A Court of Thorns and Roses in this review but there are NO SPOILERS for A Court of Mist and Fury (the current book). Only brief spoilers of the last novel. You can read my review of A Court of Thorns and Roses HERE

I didn't expect to enjoy this novel. While I thought A Court of Thorns and Roses was a vast improvement over Maas's debut, Throne of Glass, I wasn't a die-hard fan. The former was a re-telling of "Beauty and the Beast" with a romance that was simply too easy. Tamlin never charmed me, despite his kindness towards Feyre, but I'll admit to being curious about A Court of Mist and Fury, if only because I was fascinated by the after-effects of Feyre breaking Tamlin's curse. This sequel is darker and far more mature than A Court of Thorns and Roses. Feyre isn't a human girl trapped in a faerie court; she's Fey herself, powerful beyond measure and terrified of her past.

I always find that there is a fine line between fantasy and realistic fiction. So many circumstances which are serious and deeply worrying in realistic fiction can be explained away by magic or otherworldly nature in fantasy and I've always been wary of this. Feyre and Tamlin are both suffering from PTSD, of sorts, following their escape from Amarantha's court. While they are very much in love, their fears of the past manifest themselves in different ways. Essentially, this means that Tamlin refuses to let Feyre leave his court, trapping her within the walls of the Spring Court and keeping her in the dark regarding the war brewing outside their borders. After killing innocent lives to save Tamlin, Feyre knows that she is capable of unspeakable things and Tamlin's behavior--his refusal to see reason and give her freedom--causes her to spiral. Their relationship is volatile, full of emotional abuse and depression so if you're a fan of Tamlin, likely you'll hate him by the end of this novel. It's hard to watch and it often made me uncomfortable, if only because it's difficult to discuss issues such as PTSD, depression, or abuse within the context of a fantasy novel with egotistical males and magic free-flowing.

Thankfully, Rhys arrives to whisk Feyre away to his court, making sure that she upholds her side of the bargain. And Rhys is an absolute sweetheart. You can tell that he cares for Feyre, deeply, and as the two spend more and more time together, we grow to see that Rhys is a far different being than who we met in A Court of Thorns and Roses. I want to make it clear that though the synopsis hints at a love triangle, there is absolutely not one at all. Feyre breaks ties with Tamlin when she joins Rhys's court and their romance is a slow-burn. It isn't the main purpose of the plot and I appreciated that, but nevertheless the growing relationship between Feyre and Rhys is important and beautifully written. I fell hard for their love story and will admit to have been converted to a die-hard shipper. Oops!

Rhys's court is complex and stunning. Readers are in for a series of surprises when it comes to this High Lord and I enjoyed uncovering all his layers, not to mention meeting his close friends and becoming attached to them, as well. The secondary characters are all well-developed and Maas effortlessly expands her host of characters. It is often difficult to develop a love for more than a couple of secondary characters after their absence in the first novel but Maas doesn't struggle with this at all. We also re-visit Feyre's sisters and I enjoyed witnessing those relationships grow and change, shift and be re-built.

The plot of A Court of Mist and Fury is fascinating and edge-of-your-seat worthy. The Fey lands are on the brink of war and Amarantha's court was only the beginning. The world-building is vastly expanded upon in this novel as we travel beyond the Spring Court, not only to visit Rhys's court but others as well. Moreover, as Feyre tests the extent of her new powers, she makes new friends (and enemies) along the way.

This novel is just so good at striking that perfect balance between characterization and plot--I've come away from this utterly in love with all of the characters but also unable to stop turning the plot points in my mind, searching for clues I might have missed. Truly, this is an incredible improvement upon Maas's previous novel in this series and I am so glad I gave this series another shot. The romance is butterfly-inducing, the plot is complex and compelling, the characters are well-developed and deep, and the ending is a torment but not in the same way a cliffhanger is. All I know is that I'll be pre-ordering the sequel when it becomes available because I just have to know how this is going to end. A Court of Thorns and Roses may not have impressed but this sequel more than made up for that--tenfold.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Monthly Rewind: April

3 Things About My Life This Month

1. Your comments on my Monthly Rewind: March post truly got me through April. THANK YOU! I needed to hear all of your words of wisdom, your support, your e-mails, your comments...I needed that and, perhaps because of that, April was a much better month for me. I wasn't as stressed or overwhelmed, despite exams, and I was able to get more reading in, which always makes me happier, plus I actually got more blog posts out too! So thank you all so, so much--you cannot know how much I appreciate it. *hugs*

2. Marathon Monday was FANTASTIC! The weather was perfect--arguably the best day of April--and I had so much fun cheering on the runners! My friend just bought an inflatable boat so the two of us took it out onto Lake Waban and had the most beautiful, pleasant journey just floating along on a bright sunny day. We had the lake to ourselves because the boat house was open and I was incandescently happy.

3. I had my last Choir concert of the year! Honestly, the entire concert felt extremely surreal but by the end, I was so proud of my group and truly sorry to be singing for the last time with our seniors, many of whom have become my closest friends and mentors. We had a visiting director this semester as our usual director was on sabbatical and it was his last day, too, so we had a tearful good-bye. All in all, it was a sentimental night! Choir is such a huge part of my life here at Wellesley so I can't believe it's yet another year gone by!

Best Book I Read this Month

This is a tie between The Winner's Kiss by Marie Rutkoski and Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar. Both of these books are beautifully written and though they are completely different genres and deal with entirely different issues, I cannot recommend them enough. I posted my reviews for both of these this past month so be sure to check them out!

Most Popular Post This Month

Release Day Review: Chase Me by Laura Florand

This book is so good so I'm really glad that this post got the attention it deserved. Florand is an absolute genius of a writer. I am forever in awe of her skill and this novel was equal parts sexy, laugh-out-loud hilarious, and swoon-worthy.

Post I Wish Got a Little More Love

My recent post on Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum. Buxbaum is a debut author but her book blew me out of the water. It's such an adorable novel but it deals with some hard-hitting issues and presents sex and female relationships in a realistic light. I loved so much about it, from its familial relationships to its romance--don't pass up on this one!

3 Things I'm Looking Forward to in May

A lot of things I'm looking forward to in May have already happened like Holi, Choir Banquet, and Last Day of Classes. BUT, here are a few more...
Choir Officers '15-'16 at Choir Banquet!
1. The END! I  can't wait till I've submitted that last final, you guys! This semester has been SO HARD and I am ready for it to be done, academically. I am less than two weeks away!

2. Senior Week! I'm going to staying on campus till the end of May to sing with the Choir for Baccalaureate so this means that I'll be on campus during Senior Week! The seniors have a ton of activities planned which I hope to crash and I'm really looking forward to going into Boston and maybe finding a beach or two as well. It's going to be a really lovely, quiet time to be on this beautiful campus and I can't wait to experience it!

3. HOME! I'm going home! In less than a month! HOME!

How am I half-way done through college already? Remember when I started this blog I was still in high school? Where has time gone? How was your April? What are you looking forward to in May?

Friday, April 29, 2016

Review: Tell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

Title: Tell Me Three Things

Author: Julie Buxbaum 

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Tell Me Three Things is Buxbaum's debut into Young Adult fiction but it reads like the work of a seasoned author. I would have completely overlooked this novel if it hadn't been for Maja's stellar review of it, just a few weeks ago, and I'm so glad I gave this volume a chance. Jessie, a junior in high school whose biggest problems in life should be preparing for her SATs, has just moved to LA. Within weeks of her mother passing away, he joined a bereavement group, fell in love, got married, and is now moving Jessie away from public school in Chicago to Wood Valley where she sticks out like a sore thumb. On the first day she arrives, though, Jessie receives a mysterious e-mail from Somebody Nobody, an anonymous boy who helps Jessie navigate the complex hierarchies at Wood Valley. But who is SN? And why does he refuse to meet Jessie in person?

Frankly, the mystery behind Somebody Nobody--though cute and extremely a la "You've Got Mail"--is just a tad bit predictable. But, that doesn't take away from the crux of the story whatsoever. The identity of Somebody Nobody isn't as important as his friendship with Jessie or her endless theories on who he might be. Is it Liam, the lead singer of OVille whom Dri, Jessie's new friend, is majorly crushing on? Is it Caleb, Liam's friend and an occasional song-writer on the band? Or it is Ethan, Jessie's partner in English class and the guy she can't get out of her head? I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jessie navigate through the mystery of SN alongside her newly founded relationships with friends and acquaintances in Wood Valley.

But, the best part about Tell Me Three Things is not this mystery; it's merely Jessie. Jessie's grief over losing her mother is present and palpable. It isn't an overbearing type of sadness that permeates the book--after all, Jessie is doing her best to move on and acclimate to her new life--but she cannot forget her mother, which is natural. Her stepmother, Rachel, is busy and often aloof and her stepbrother, Theo, is equally confused by the turn of events which find him with a new father and Jessie with a new mother. Thus, Jessie's journey to continue forward each day, all while missing her best friend, Scarlet, from back home and yearning for her old life--one in which her mother existed--is admirable. I loved Jessie's voice from the beginning and her honesty and genuine kindness are nothing short of lovely. She isn't a perfect heroine, which I love, but she's a protagonist who never gives up and learns from her mistakes to be better.

Jessie's relationship with her father, too, is a definite highlight. At first, she is simply shocked by his actions but, slowly, that numbness turns into anger as she demands answers. Why has her father forgotten her? Why didn't he consult her before moving her across the country? Why is he so focused on his grief that he has forgotten about hers? It's difficult to watch Jessie realize that her father is human as well--that despite the fact that he is an adult, he absolutely does not have it all together. I think that's one of the hardest lessons every teenager learns as they grow up and Jessie comes to that realization as well, during some of the hardest moments of her life. But the progression of her relationship with her father is well-timed and realistic. I enjoyed how Tell Me Three Things didn't end with a neatly wrapped-up bow when it came to Jessie's new family. She is still figuring things out with her stepmother, her stepbrother, and her father but everything is going to be OK, slowly but surely.

There's a similar sense of resolution with Jessie's social and academic life at school. Her new friends are supportive and immediately include her, trusting her with their secrets and sharing their opinions on sex, boys, and life in general. I give Buxbaum kudos for writing multiple sex-positive discussions that occur between Jessie and her friends, whether her new ones like Dri and Agnes in Wood Valley or her old ones like Scarlet in Chicago. I think it's just as important to show young girls that it's normal and healthy to talk about sex, not just be having it, and to have your own opinions about it that may differ from that of your friends. Jessie's boy troubles come to a rather hilarious conclusion and though I can't say too much more without fear of spoilers, I will say that the slow-burn romance and friendship at the core of this story is swoon-worthy. Moreover, Jessie's friendship with SN isn't merely about the romance--it's about sharing their life stories and accepting that difficult things happen in life, even to young people.

Tell Me Three Things is a powerful, truly memorable novel. Buxbaum writes a beautiful note at the end of the story, detailing her inspiration to write this piece and I have to say that I am immensely thankful that she wrote this. We are inundated with grief novels in YA and though they are necessary, I appreciate that Buxbaum wrote this not necessarily as a story about cycling through the seven stages of grief but rather as a novel about dealing with the aftermath of death and accepting that life doesn't stop for anyone. Jessie's mourning is an important aspect of this novel, but so is her growth as a teenager, her relationships with new friends and family members, and her self-realization about romance, her father, and so much more. It's a truly gorgeous blend of life and though this won't be a read I return to, this is going to be an author I eagerly watch out for. I hope Buxbaum is here to stay in the YA genre--she effortlessly writes non-awkward chapters consisting merely of texts, which, let me assure, is no easy task--and is a fresh voice that this genre definitely needs. Tell Me Three Things is poignant and refreshing; you'll fall in love with it, I guarantee.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Review: Summer Skin by Kirsty Eagar

Title: Summer Skin

Author: Kirsty Eagar

Rating: 5 Stars

Summer Skin is the type of New Adult novel I've been waiting to be written; a book that is sexy, passes the Bechdel test, and discusses feminism without shame or pretense. It's a story of two rival schools--Unity, co-ed, and Knights, all-male and distinctly elite. Last year the Knights men made a bet to sleep with a Unity freshman and this year, the Unity girls are out for revenge. The story opens with Jess, a Unity girl, sneaking onto the Knights campus to steal a Knights jersey--the prize for the Unity who humiliates a Knights man the most on the night of their annual toga party. But Jess is seen by Blondie, an arrogant Knights guy who she can't seem to get out of her head and when she encounters him again at the toga party, that's when the fun truly begins.

Jess and Blondie have a crazy relationship. It's messy and isn't perfect, which I love. They'll be in a middle of a steamy scene and suddenly it'll get awkward or uncomfortable and it all felt so desperately real that I couldn't help but love each and every moment of this book. Plus, the majority of their relationship lies in their conversations trying to understand one another. To Jess, Mitch (Blondie) seems to be just another Knights guy--willing to use women for sex without sustaining a relationship with them first--and Jess wants to be more than that. But also, she doesn't want to judge Mitch for his actions or the women he's been with for their decisions. Just because she requires more than a nameless face for sex doesn't mean that everyone does. But that concept of feminism--of women owning their agency--is so difficult to internalize.

This book is all about understanding what it means to be a feminist and using that definition however you see fit; for Jess that means that she doesn't feel comfortable having sex unless she has some sort of relationship with the person, for her friends it means entirely different things and their difficulty navigating those waters is what makes this such a phenomenal story. There's one scene in particular where Jess is talking to her Instagram famous friend about her insecurities--why does her friend constantly feel the need to post on Instagram?--and she admits that though she has judged her friend, she also admires her. I think that's the crux of discovering feminism at any point in your life--you judge others for their actions, whether it be their sexual liberty or their lack of sexual actions--but you're also torn between admiring them and wanting to be them as well. It's so hard to be okay with being you and rationalizing your own decisions to yourself, especially when the whole world seems to be of a different opinion, so I really love that we get to explore this tension with Jess in such an authentic manner.

Mitch, too, isn't all he seems on paper. The guy is screwed up--won't kiss, won't have sex, definitely will touch--but his relationship with Jess evolves and changes with time which I appreciate. It's difficult and certainly not an easy slope to climb but I enjoyed getting a glimpse into his world as well--the pressures he faces from guys around him, the way his friends think about women, etc. It isn't easy to be a feminist and be a man. We think it is but sometimes, society and circumstances are built in such a way that it's so hard for men to break out of their molds, too. Like Jess, I'd often sway between frustration and swoon when it came to Mitch but by the end, I understood his perspective too do, kudos to Eagar for not making this one-sided and flat but instead turning this three-dimensional and complex and all-too-real.

Summer Skin is so, so good. It features healthy discussions about sex, not just with partners but also with friends and adults. It centers around Jess and Mitch's relationship but also revolves around them individually and their struggles with friendship and college and figuring out what they want. Plus, there's the tension between Unity and Knights that persists throughout, the forbidden element of Jess and Mitch's affair, not to mention Eagar's distinct writing style that never fails to amaze me. I only wish similar books were being written with different characters and different races and genders and socio-economic statuses so that we'd have a whole slew of novels that discussed feminism and sex so that teens didn't have to feel so alone when they glanced at their bookshelves. But maybe this is the start of that revolution; I certainly hope so.