Review: The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater

From Goodreads:

It happens at the start of every November: the Scorpio Races. Riders attempt to keep hold of their water horses long enough to make it to the finish line. Some riders live. Others die.

At age nineteen, Sean Kendrick is the returning champion. He is a young man of few words, and if10626594 he has any fears, he keeps them buried deep, where no one else can see them.

Puck Connolly is different. She never meant to ride in the Scorpio Races. But fate hasn’t given her much of a chance. So she enters the competition — the first girl ever to do so. She is in no way prepared for what is going to happen.

“I’m so full of an unnamed wanting that I can’t bear it.” — Maggie Steifvater, The Scorpio Races

Maggie Steifvater, I’m really ashamed that this is the first book of yours I’ve read. Because I am undone by The Scorpio Races.

Maggie Steifvater is one of those names in YA that everyone knows and has read, kind of like Michelle Hodkin with the Mara Dyer series (my heart). I’ve known about her for ages, but I’ve never read any of her books, mostly because fantasy novels tend to fall to the bottom of my to-read pile. I consistently gravitate toward contemporary real-life novels and I’m not sure why. That mystery is especially unsolvable when I read a good fantasy novel and cannot deal for the rest of the month because I’m still reeling (think: Graceling series, I am still not okay). So, Steifvater’s books always drifted out of my focus. But when I was at a bookstore last week, I saw it and thought I might as well give it a try.

I AM SUCH A FOOL. The Scorpio Races is unreal; it is so excellent that I am physically kicking myself for waiting so long to read it.

First off, I want to talk about the setting. It’s a fantasy novel, and Steifvater said in her Printz Honor acceptance speech that with The Scorpio Races, she wanted it to be a “book about a world.” However, creating an entire Game-of-Thrones-esque world, complete with languages, currencies, maps, etc. is daunting so the actual story can often get lost in the noise. She chose to create a world seemingly within our actual world, with an America as we know it, but also with magic. And she makes it real—visceral to the point of feeling tangible—by using distinct, yet minute, details. Details about the smells of Thisby (the name of the island where this is set), the sounds of the ocean, and the tactility of the horses and the capaill uisce, the mythical water horses that race in the Scorpio Races. There’s also a motif of traditional Thisby foods interwoven into the novel, which a palpable dimension to the world and seamlessly rounds it out. It feels real because it is real because she made it real. Yaaaasss. 

Next up, the ridiculously acute characterization of Puck Connolly. This is easily my favorite aspect of The Scorpio Races. I’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s the inclination of some authors to tell instead of show when it comes to character development. Authors will say something dumb like, “Jane preferred to spend her Saturday nights at home because she was a homebody.” It’s like, yes we gathered that she was a homebody based on the fact that she is at home, you don’t need to spell it out for us. Don’t dumb it down for your peeps, authors! That’s boring and we don’t need it! Steifvater does a killer job at showing her characters and letting their actions and offhand thoughts do the telling. All of Puck’s characterization happens in moments of internal thought and instinctive action. Here are my favorite examples:

“I’d always thought I was above being fascinated by anyone but myself.”

“I always liked the idea of being such a bother that I affected even the weather.”

“I am opposed to people touching me when I’m not expecting it.”

“Mum said that I shouldn’t be moved to do anything by someone with sweet words … but Tommy Falk doesn’t seem to be trying to persuade me of anything, so I let his compliment slip down nice and easy. It’s quite agreeable  and I’d be happy enough with another.”

That’s just a few sentences and I know you already have a good sense of who she is and what she stands for. Isn’t that so good? That’s how Steifvater develops all of the main characters in this book, and it’s absolutely riveting.

The last thing I want to talk about is the love story. From the first time Puck and Sean Kendrick meet, you know—and, more importantly, they seem to know—that they are going to be together and that’s what’s so startling. The suspense isn’t in the mystery, it’s in their individual personal journeys. For Puck, that means saving her childhood home. For Sean, that means buying his freedom, in a sense. Their relationship is a compulsory side effect. By shifting the readers focus away from wondering if they will ever get together and toward the races and their growing loyalty to each other, Steifvater makes her story more enticing and reflective of what growing close to someone really looks like . Seeing the priorities of two rather stubborn and passionate characters shift is intense and inspiring and yo, I’m not embarrassed to say I cried about it.

If you couldn’t tell, I love this book so so much.

And I’ll end it with this quote:

“The evening sun loves her throat and her cheekbones.”

UGH. That personification though! You guys feel? Tell me about it.

Review: All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

From Goodreads:

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.
 
Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.
 
When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves 18460392whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.
 
This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Gayle Forman, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.

 

“All the Bright Places” is Jennifer Niven’s first young adult novel. In her author’s note, she says that she wanted to produce something edgy, a book that draws from her own life experiences.

I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I picked up this book. I liked the cover and I liked the synopsis, and that’s basically all I need to know. I hadn’t read any reviews or anything so I was unprepared. Well, here I am telling you people out there (if anyone reads these because tbh it could just be my mom)…

PREPARE YOURSELVES.

This is a doozy.

Let’s start off here. I love POV shifts in YA lit. However, I think it’s really hard to pull off. Like “The 5th Wave. ” It was a cool book, but did it rock having a million POV shifts? Nah, not really. It was confusing and distracting and weird. It’s important to stick to two, maybe three, and really get to know those characters enough that you can develop distinct, riveting voices for each. That’s one thing Niven does really well. Finch and Violet are their own people. They start out very separate, but Niven manages to almost seamlessly interweave their thoughts as they come together and get to know each other better. It’s a refreshing way to develop characters and move through a story.

Niven’s writing style is just as impressive. When someone writes in the YA genre, you have to be really comfortable putting words into teenagers’ mouths. If they sound too anything, you get accused of being out of touch with your readers. But if you dumb it down, your readers aren’t going to give it a second glance. It’s kind of a narrow window of “Yes, I could totally hear [insert your local teenager’s name here] say that.” Not many authors get there, but I think she’s figured it out.

I also like how she plays around with technique. There’s a lot of your standard back-and-forth dialogue, inner thoughts, etc. but she also uses a lot of an unanticipated poetic constructs. Finch and Violet will be having a conversation and one of them will jump in with a couple stanzas of a popular poem. Or, one of them will break out with a poem in their moments of observation. Or, Niven will forgo prose and just start writing in poetry. It’s jarring, but it’s perfect. I mean, it’s just what you didn’t realize the moment needs.

Like there’s this one chapter, and all it is is a few stanzas and I swear, I’ll never forget it. It makes such an impact.

I wouldn’t have had that reaction if it was a short little paragraph.

“All the Bright Places” is an endearing book, emotional and funny—but definitely not always fun—and it is inspiring. It’s thoughtful and observational, almost like a scientific study on mental illness in young people. What it looks like ignored vs. what it looks like with help. It’s a necessary book, one I didn’t know we needed (like the poetry).

Read it if you’re emotionally prepared to read it. Read it if you’re not.

Review: Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer

From Goodreads:

If life were fair, Jam Gallahue would still be  at home in New Jersey with her sweet British  boyfriend, Reeve Maxfield. She’d be watching  old comedy sketches with him. She’d be kissing  him in the library stacks.

She certainly wouldn’t be at The Wooden Barn, a therapeutic boarding school in 20821376rural Vermont, living with a weird roommate, and signed up for an exclusive, mysterious class called Special Topics in English.

But life isn’t fair, and Reeve Maxfield is dead.

Until a journal-writing assignment leads Jam to Belzhar, where the untainted past is restored, and Jam can feel Reeve’s arms around her once again. But there are hidden truths on Jam’s path to reclaim her loss.

From New York Times bestselling author Meg Wolitzer comes a breathtaking and surprising story about first love, deep sorrow, and the power of acceptance.

Meg Wolitzer’s young adult novel Belzhar has been poised at the top of my TBR pile since its release this time last year. But I hesitated. The summary is vague, I’m not that into Sylvia Plath (though since reading this book I might be). And, I have a hard time buying hardcover books—the paperback version isn’t out yet—because my name isn’t Colette MoneyBags Whitney. Let’s face it, hardcover books require the blood of your best friend’s first born. And I’m not into that. Also, my best friend doesn’t have any kids.

But then someone bought it for me. So no innocent blood needed. 

When I finished the book, my first thought was that it really reminded me of We Were Liars. You know how that book is told out of order and is pretty twisted and suspenseful? Well, Belzhar is basically We Were Liars minus the really twisted aspects, plus excellent characterization and a better story overall (imho).

The premise is that this girl, Jam, gets sent to a school for grieving teens because her boyfriend died and she doesn’t know how to deal. So she goes to this school, gets placed in a special English class for which she and her classmates have to write in  journals. It’s just that those journals aren’t normal; they transport the teenagers to an alternate reality, one in which their individual tragedies cease to exist. But when the glory of the journals transforms into something dark and strange, they’re each confronted with a choice.

I like this book for a lot of reasons. I think it’s an original story with ties to reality and to the past, which always makes a story richer and gives it permanence. I like how Wolitzer interweaves a fantastical idea—that of an alternate reality—with the cold, devastating truths of mortality and betrayal. In that way, an overdone story (dead boyfriend, divorced parents, etc.) becomes new and fresh and alive. It’s cool, it’s like a contemporary fantasy/reality fiction hybrid (again, there is probably a word for this and I need someone to please tell me).

I also think Wolitzer must have had a great time writing it. Some of the best books, the books that break your heart and stay with you, are those that begin or culminate in some kind of tragedy. Think Harry Potter, Graceling, any John Green book, The Boy Next Door, etc. And in Belzhar, Wolitzer gets to write a different, crashing tragedy for each character. That must be thrilling when you get it right, when you really nail a sad story and you know it’s going to get genuine reactions out of people. That has to be a great feeling.

Anyways, I really enjoyed reading Belzhar. I think it was thoughtful and respectful of the trauma that some teenagers unfortunately experience. There’s a weird thing that sometimes happens when teenagers get emotional or get sad or get depressed. Adults tend to disregard it, or try to minimize their suffering, which is totally not fair because when you’re a teenager, the smallest bad thing can be devastating and that’s okay. I think you’re allowed to be a little irrational at that age and I don’t think that occasional irrationality gives anyone the right to make light of truly, inarguably tragic things when they inevitably do happen.

I think Wolitzer understands that and through Belzhar, starts a new dialogue about how teenagers move through suffering. And how they make it out.

What I’ve Been Reading: Summer 2015

Okay so it is August and I haven’t posted anything since May. Not very good blogger behavior. I apologize.

I’ve been having some crazy months. I graduated from college. Moved home. Started a job. I’m trying to adjust to this new life. It’s weird to be back here, but it’s awesome getting to read whatever I want. I loved most of my required reading at school, but being an English lit minor meant there was a lot of it. I didn’t get to read nearly as many of the books that I wanted to read. And I just minored in it.

That being said, the first thing I did when I got home was go to Politics and Prose and stock up.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

The Rules for Disappearing by Ashley Elston. I’m struggling to remember this one because I read it in June, but from what I recall, it was pretty cool. The premise is that this girl and her family were placed in the Witness Protection Program and she doesn’t know why. When she moves to Nowhere, Louisiana, she’s just hoping it sticks so they don’t have to move again. The book details her attempts to solve her family’s mystery, and it includes a sexy farmer. So, win. It’s a series, which I think is a bold move for contemporary, sort of reality YA lit (I’m sure there’s a term for this and I just don’t know it because I’m a terrible blogger). I liked this book, but did I love it like I love my favorite books? Nah.

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. Jenny Han is a big deal in the YA book world, so this has been on my list for a while. But can I just say, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was too cutesy—even for me. And I like a good cutesy book! I think 13 year-old me would have liked this, but—dare I say it? I think I might have grown out of this particular flavor. But you should read it if you want a warm and fuzzy read.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. (PSA: NOT YOUNG ADULT. So proceed to my mini review with caution). Ugh, WOOF. Stop trying to make “Gone Girl” happen, Paula Hawkins! It already happened! I don’t know, a lot of people liked this book. I thought it was a cop out of a plot. Exactly what you think is going to happen happens. A truly boring plot construction. She had something going with the nonlinear storytelling technique, but that basically didn’t matter given the cliche-ness of the overall story. Am I totally off-base? I need constructive feedback, so lay it on me.

And drumroll plz….

The Mara Dyer series by Michelle Hodkin. Considering this is required reading for fans of YA, it’s shameful that I am just reading this fantastic series now. I read them all in quick succession, so I don’t think I could adequately review each one. I’ll just dump a lot of thoughts right here. Let’s talk about how twisted this story is. I mean, Paula Hawkins wishes she could get this twisted. Hodkin wrote a layered, smart and captivating story with a plot to kill and characters I won’t soon forget. Mara’s personal journey gets more interesting as her and Noah’s relationship gets more complicated, which makes their ultimate search for the truth about who the heck they are all the more stressful, yet so satisfying. If you haven’t read this series yet, forgo whatever is at the top of your to-read pile and read this. It’s so good. Like leave-you-crying-for-no-reason good, you know? Of course you know. If you like books like I like books, you know. Which you all do. Come on, you know you all do. OMG JUST READ THESE BOOKS!

General things:

I re-read “Anna and the French Kiss” for probably the tenth time. Stephanie Perkins, willyoupleaseadoptme. Or I can like be your assistant. Or clean your house. Or take care of your pets or cook your dinners or whatever you want hello I love you.

ALSO!! Sequel to Libba Bray’s “Diviners” is *finally* out! I’m currently reading, I cannot deal. AND a new Huntley Fitzpatrick book is about to come out. YOU GUYS KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT THIS.

“Isla and the Happily Ever After” is about to be released in paperback, which means I’m about to complete my collection and take so many instagrams. Speaking of, why don’t you follow me on Instagram?? @colette_whitney. I’ll follow you back if I think you’re cool enough! Jk I’ll just follow you back.

(But only if you’re cool enough).

What are you guys reading? Tell me tell me. And anyone considering going to Yallfest? I’m thinking about making that journey.

Peace n blessins.

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REVIEW: Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu

From Goodreads:

Montana and her sister, Arizona, are named after the mountainous states their mother left them for. But Montana is a New York City girl through and through, and as the city heats up, she’s stepping into the most intense summer of her life.

With Arizona wrapped up in her college world and their father distracted by yet another 22011484divorce, Montana’s been immersing herself in an intoxicating new friendship with a girl from her acting class. Karissa is bold, imperfectly beautiful, and unafraid of being vulnerable. She’s everything Montana would like to become. But the friendship with Karissa is driving a wedge between Montana and her sister, and the more of her own secrets Karissa reveals, the more Montana has to wonder if Karissa’s someone she can really trust.

In the midst of her uncertainty, Montana finds a heady distraction in Bernardo. He’s serious and spontaneous, and he looks at Montana in the way she wants to be seen. For the first time, Montana understands how you can become both lost and found in somebody else. But when that love becomes everything, where does it leave the rest of her imperfect life?

The back cover copy of Making Pretty by Corey Ann Haydu really convinced my that I would not like it. I am not a huge fan of supposedly intoxicating summer stories, just because they’re usually cliched and riddled with stereotypes. Making Pretty has a lot of that going on, especially with its crazy first relationship and friend drama.

Montana’s story is one about love and friendship, but it’s an even more thorough commentary on her family, how it’s cracked and different and okay.

The only parts in the book that I truly enjoyed are her family moments. I thought the love interest was overdone and a little bit too cheesy for my taste. The tension between Montana and Karissa is pretty interesting and kept me flipping pages. But the family moments, they are the most honest and intriguing.

Making Pretty definitely is not one of my favorite books of the year, but I still enjoyed it. Haydu has excellent one-liners and is really great at setting the scene in unexpected ways. If you are a fan of summer stories or New York stories and have some time on your hands, definitely check this out.

Review: Everything that Makes You by Moriah McStay

From Goodreads:

One girl. Two stories. Meet Fiona Doyle. The thick ridges of scar tissue on her face are from an accident twelve years ago. Fiona has notebooks full of songs she’s written about her frustrations, her dreams, and about her massive crush on beautiful uber-jock Trent 21795576McKinnon. If she can’t even find the courage to look Trent straight in his beautiful blue eyes, she sure isn’t brave enough to play or sing any of her songs in public. But something’s changing in Fiona. She can’t be defined by her scars anymore.

And what if there hadn’t been an accident? Meet Fi Doyle. Fi is the top-rated female high school lacrosse player in the state, heading straight to Northwestern on a full ride. She’s got more important things to deal with than her best friend Trent McKinnon, who’s been different ever since the kiss. When her luck goes south, even lacrosse can’t define her anymore. When you’ve always been the best at something, one dumb move can screw everything up. Can Fi fight back?

Hasn’t everyone wondered what if? In this daring debut novel, Moriah McStay gives us the rare opportunity to see what might have happened if things were different. Maybe luck determines our paths. But maybe it’s who we are that determines our luck.

I’m going back to my roots with Moriah McStay’s debut novel, Everything that Makes You. You all know I love a good debut book and this one is no exception. I recently received this and three other novels (reviews to come), but this is the first one I read. And I read it in approximately 4 hours.

It’s an intriguing premise — one girl, two stories. I think a lot about what might have happened if I had chosen differently for myself. To imagine what might have been is something we all do, I think. McStay makes a study of what might have been in Everything that Makes You.

The two dueling stories seem to ask how one moment can affect the rest of your life. How strong is that effect? Does it really matter? McStay attempts to answer those seemingly unanswerable questions with Fiona Doyle. The two Fiona Doyles, one meek and scared, one strong and confident. And then one thing flips them around and makes each the opposite.

It’s a thoughtful story and one that left me thinking for a couple days. I’m not sure what conclusion McStay drew from her book. But I think that question mark is part of the point. We don’t get to decide what happens to us, but we can decide who to be and what to chase. That’s sort of what I got from the book.

On top of that, it was beautifully written. The book is poised and purposeful and mature, with a sort of smoothness about it. The characters were full and well-developed. My favorite is her brother. That’s a relationship we don’t see much in this genre, unfortunately.

If you’re looking for a smart and interesting quick read, check this out!

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REVIEW: Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton

From Goodreads:

Quin Kincaid has been put through years of brutal training for what she thinks is the noble purpose of becoming a revered ‘Seeker’.

Only when it’s too late does she discover she will be using her new-found knowledge and training to become an assassin. Quin’s new role will take her around the globe, from a remote estate in Scotland to a bustling, futuristic Hong Kong where the past she thought she had escaped will finally catch up with her.

I swiped Seeker  from NetGalley about a month ago. It sounded like it was right up my alley, a little mix20911450 of low fantasy with high fantasy, a sprinkle of a love triangle, and some intense traveling.

But like I said, I picked it up a month ago, and I am just now finishing it. I am a fast reader, but I could motivate myself to keep reading Seeker. I was not devoted to the characters or the story line. There was no intrinsic need for me to know what was going to happen next.

Quin, Shinobu and John are in training to become seekers, protectors of humanity. They spend their whole lived working toward this goal, and eventually, Quin and Shinobu achieve it. But it’s not what they expect. They’re forced by the haunting Briac (who also happens to be Quin’s father) to harm people. They learn they’re more akin to glorified assasins. So they escape, Quin forgets her past, and they start a new life. One without each other. Meanwhile, John is out for revenge. Briac wronged his family and he is trying to set things right, which puts his romantic relationship with Quin at risk.

It sounds like a cool plot, and it was for the most part. But there was a lack of connection between the reader and the characters that was hard for me to overlook. It was like a combination of them not revealing their feelings and as a consequence, me not fully understanding why they did what they did. So I just really didn’t care much about what happened.

That being said, this is the first book in the series, so there’s undoubtedly a lot of character development and revelation to come. I just wish there had been more from the start. Would I read the next one? Probably, but it doesn’t come out until spring 2016, so who knows what I’ll be reading then?