My Life Next Door by Huntley Fitzpatrick

29 05 2012

 

 

 

 

A gorgeous debut about family, friendship, first romance, and how to be true to one person you love without betraying another

“One thing my mother never knew, and would disapprove of most of all, was that I watched the Garretts. All the time.”

The Garretts are everything the Reeds are not. Loud, numerous, messy, affectionate. And every day from her balcony perch, seventeen-year-old Samantha Reed wishes she was one of them . . . until one summer evening, Jase Garrett climbs her terrace and changes everything. As the two fall fiercely in love, Jase’s family makes Samantha one of their own. Then in an instant, the bottom drops out of her world and she is suddenly faced with an impossible decision. Which perfect family will save her? Or is it time she saved herself?

A dreamy summer read, full of characters who stay with you long after the story is over.

 

 

 

I am a complete unabashed lover of all things contemporary, and when I first heard of My Life Next Door I was excited. The book had a great concept — a girl in love with a boy, looking out her window and wishing that she had his life — and while it seemed a bit too much on the romance end for my tastes I was excited when I recieved an ARC for review.

Samantha Reed has the perfect life — or she should have the perfect life. Her mother is a high ranking senator, she has great friends, she’s popular, she has a good job. But she doesn’t care. Next door live the humongous family of the Garrets, with a gaggle of children. The Garrets are loud, they’re noisy, they’re somewhat obnoxious and often ridiculed for having so many children. And for Samantha, in her sort of own little world that’s supposedly perfect, this noise is what she dreams of — something that is so different from her house’s silence. So she watches the Garrets every night, admiring their chaos. When she starts to become closer to Jase — a hot Garrett near her age — she becomes more aquainted with the family and starts to leave her silent world. But of course, tragedy strikes and she must decide which family will help her.

One of the reasons I was so interested in reading My Life Next Door was the family aspect. (And I just checked when I added the book; Goodreads tells me September — wow). I love family stories, learning about a family’s own little subculture and their quirks and habits. My favorite parts of the plot were probably when Samantha intracted with all the Garrets. The Garrets are such a family; they argue and fight and have a “talking stick” to navigate family discussions. The people in the family are so realistic too — George is basically the quintessential preschooler, Dusty and the younger  brothers are elementary school personified, Jase and the older brothers are high school exactly, Alice is the college student.

When I read these scenes, I couldn’t help but smile — they seemed so realistic and the characters seemed like real people. They seemed like someone you would see in your neighborhood and talk to.

In other regards to the plot, I felt that the subplots were a bit finicky. The main subplots are Samantha’s fight with her best friend and her mother’s attempt to become reelected. Neither of these subplots ever seemed very developed and they both ended, for me, in very predictable ways. The mother’s plot is that she is dating a skeevy man working on her campaign and while I felt that she seemd realisticly engrossed in politics, I guessed what would happen right away. With the friendship plot Samantha and her best friend Nan have had a bit of a falling out — this plot seemed more cliche to me, as this same storyline (while important) has happened in many, many other good books. Both of the subplots seemed kind of shoved into the book, thrown in to add more “spice” to the story, and they seemed to detract from the main points of the story: the families and the (ah-ha) romance.

This review is already over five hundred words (long reviews ftw) and I haven’t even mentioned the romance. (Of course I wouldn’t discuss the romance for 556 words). The romance is the key selling point of the book. It isn’t the family or the politics or the best friend stories. While the family aspect is important, and the politics and best friend subplots also have their own importance, the main thing that this book has been marketed as is a

“ya contemporary teen romace, guareenteed to take your breath away”

and, yeah, that’s a cliche descriptor, but will it sell books? Will people go OMG I want my breath taken away and snatch up this book for $17.99 at their bookstore or online? Yes. But in terms of My Life Next Doorromance, this may not be the best descriptor. I felt that there was hardly any romance. There was romance, but it didn’t “take my breath away” and I felt like the book was really more about family then romance.

Jace and Samantha are in a relationship, and they are happy, and their romance is sweet — kissing and the “next level” — but I never really felt it. I never really felt those sparks and that love. It was sweet and happy and I would give the book to someone who enjoys romance, but for me I never felt their love. To be honest, I felt the love of the mom and her boyfriend more.

This book is Fitzpatrick’s debut novel, and she is a very strong writer. The writing was clear and easy to read, with a strong voice for Samantha.

I think that this would be a good book for readers interested in romance, but it would also be a good read for those interested in family stories. The book is a strong debut and I’m interested to see what Fitzpatrick writes next.

3 stars.

—–

I received this book as an ARC from Penguin.

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Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard

3 05 2012

The years is 1876, and there’s something strange and deadly loose in Philadelphia…

Eleanor Fitt has a lot to worry about. Her brother has gone missing, her family has fallen on hard times, and her mother is determined to marry her off to any rich young man who walks by. But this is nothing compared to what she’s just read in the newspaper—

The Dead are rising in Philadelphia.

And then, in a frightening attack, a zombie delivers a letter to Eleanor…from her brother.

Whoever is controlling the Dead army has taken her brother as well. If Eleanor is going to find him, she’ll have to venture into the lab of the notorious Spirit-Hunters, who protect the city from supernatural forces. But as Eleanor spends more time with the Spirit-Hunters, including their maddeningly stubborn yet handsome inventor, Daniel, the situation becomes dire. And now, not only is her reputation on the line, but her very life may hang in the balance

Recently, I was emailing with an author who writes steampunk. She gave me permission to print this excerpt from her email:

I know this book won’t be for everyone and I knew from the get go the hard core steampunkcommunity probably wouldn’t like it, but I still want to put out the best story I am capable of.

Something Strange and Deadly seems to fit this quotation very well. It isn’t a hardcore steampunk, but it’s an interesting steampunk (and it actually has steampunk!). The story isn’t perfect, but I really enjoyed the book and I think that I will continue to read the rest of the series.

Eleanor Fitt (“Miss Fitt”) lives in 1800’s Philadelphia. Her father has recently died and her older brother, Elijah, went on a trip and has not returned. Eleanor lives at home with her uptight mother and spends her days courting suitors, entertaining guests, and hanging out with other suitable young ladies. Philadelphia is perfect and lovely, but there’s an issue: the Dead (zombies) are rising. Eleanor must work with a group of three Spirit-Hunters to take down the zombies and find her brother.

So this book is really fun. I whizzed through it in a few hours and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was fast paced and many of the twists I didn’t expect. I found the mystery to be fairly predictable and who the necromancer was to me was not shocking. Still I enjoyed the book. However I have two main things to note (one good, the other bad):

1. the zombies aren’t really that scary! First off, the premise for this book is basically awesome personified, because steampunk + zombies = awesomeness, usually every time. I was really eager to begin and see how the author would put a twist on zombies. Well, her zombies are fairly traditional (flesh eating, destroyed, pale, etc) and they aren’t really described in much detail. I never really could get an understanding of what these zombies looked like. And the descriptions that were included of the zombies weren’t really that scary and I wasn’t scared of the zombies at all, more scared for the situations that the characters had found themselves in. I never really felt the threat of the zombies. But I understood the zombies and how they worked and acted, even if they were barely described/shown. I also loved that the author actually gave them a name — “the Dead” is a bit more unique than just “zombies”.

2. there is actually steampunk in this book! Steampunk seems to be making a resurgence in the YA world at least in the titles I have seen. (Of course, some say that steampunk is already out, so…) Of these new titles, many reviewers have said that they felt that there was not enough steampunk in them, that the steampunk element was barely shown and simply thrown in by the publisher or author. Something Strange and Deadly, however, actually makes an effort and a point to show steampunk elements beyond the book blurb and a few scattered mentions throughout the text. Victorian society (teas, balls) is mentioned alongside elevators and machines and goggles, and there is even an explanation to how the world suddenly became so steampunk. I was very impressed with Dennard’s skills here; she is a strong world-builder, it seems, and I enjoyed reading about her 1800-steampunk world.

On the characters, I really enjoyed all of them. Eleanor was very well rounded and I liked that her flaws were shown (as well as a scene where she is shown to have never seen a Chinese person before; this really showed her flaws and the views she had learned in her culture). I was unsurprised about her romance with Daniel but they seemed well suited enough and I liked that the romance really took a backseat to you know, saving Philadelphia from zombies. Daniel, Joesph, and Jie (the Spirit-Hunters) were well rounded though we did not learn much information about them beyond their personalities and backstories.

Dennard’s writing is easy to read and mixes the right amount of formality and modern-day terms. She seems like a writer to watch.

I enjoyed this book a lot and I will be looking for the next book in this series, due in 2013.

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FTC Disclaimer: I received this book for review from HarperCollins in exchange for an honest review. No money or other bribes were exchanged.





Froi of the Exiles by Melina Marchetta

1 05 2012

 

 

 

Blood sings to blood, Froi . . .
Those born last will make the first . . .
For Charyn will be barren no more.

Three years after the curse on Lumatere was lifted, Froi has found his home… Or so he believes…

Fiercely loyal to the Queen and Finnikin, Froi has been trained roughly and lovingly by the Guard sworn to protect the royal family, and has learned to control his quick temper. But when he is sent on a secretive mission to the kingdom of Charyn, nothing could have prepared him for what he finds. Here he encounters a damaged people who are not who they seem, and must unravel both the dark bonds of kinship and the mysteries of a half-mad Princess.

And in this barren and mysterious place, he will discover that there is a song sleeping in his blood, and though Froi would rather not, the time has come to listen.

Gripping and intense, complex and richly imagined, Froi of the Exiles is a dazzling sequel to Finnikin of the Rock, from the internationally best-selling and multi-award-winning author of Looking for AlibrandiSaving FrancescaOn the Jellicoe Road and The Piper’s Son.

 

 

 

 

I honestly have nothing to say about this book. There is nothing I could say that I haven’t said in my other gushing reviews, nothing I could say that many other great reviewers haven’t said.

The characters are perfect, the writing is perfect, the plot is perfect. The entire book is frankly, lovely and goregous.

This review is worthless, but I’ll use this space to say something: please read Marchetta’s books if you haven’t. Please.

5 stars.





Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin

17 04 2012

Phoebe finds herself drawn to Mallory, the strange and secretive new kid in school, and the two girls become as close as sisters . . . until Mallory’s magnetic older brother, Ryland, shows up during their junior year. Ryland has an immediate, exciting hold on Phoebe-but a dangerous hold, for she begins to question her feelings about her best friend and, worse, about herself. Soon she’ll discover the shocking truth about Ryland and Mallory: that these two are visitors from the faerie realm who have come to collect on an age-old debt. Generations ago, the faerie queen promised Pheobe’s ancestor five extraordinary sons in exchange for the sacrifice of one ordinary female heir. But in hundreds of years there hasn’t been a single ordinary girl in the family, and now the faeries are dying. Could Phoebe be the first ordinary one? Could she save the faeries, or is she special enough to save herself?

This book came highly recommended by a number of people, who told me that it was a “fantastic, dark twist on fairies”. That summary is a perfect understanding of what Extraordinary is.

Phoebe and Mallory have been best friends forever, since seventh grade when Mallory moved to town and Pheobe befriended her. The girls are the best of friends and tell each other everything, from their secrets to who they’re crushing on what they think of the homework. Their friendship is strained, however, when Mallory’s long-lost brother Ryland comes to town. Ryland is mentally abusive and extremely attractive, and he lures Phoebe into his grip — and away from her tight friendship. Soon Mallory and Phoebe have ended their friendship, stuck between a boy. Phoebe must try and figure out what is up with Mallory and Phoebe, and understand her relationship (both romantically and platonically) with Ryland.

I think that one of the best explanations of Phoebe and her character comes from the School Library Journal (starred) review of this title: “Phoebe’s intullectual and emotional transformation from ordinary to extraordinary is of her own volition,, which makes her the compelling force of this bittersweet fairy tale.”

That reviewer, frankly, hits it straight on the head. I’ve discussed in other reviews (particularly in  my review of Frankie-Landau Banks) that in many contemporary YA titles, and in many very impressive and strong reviews, reviewers complain about young adult heroines. They’re needy, clingy, dependent on stalker-ish boyfriends, etc. Frankie Landau Banks is a great example of girls who go outside of this boundary, girls who are brave and strong.

Extraordinary, in many ways, is a rebuttal to the idea that girls in YA literature have to be boring and relentless towards boys. It proves its points in many ways.

I think I can add Phoebe to the strong, brave girl list, as well. Even though she starts off considering herself ordinary and says that she is ordinary many times, in her speech and in the narrative (and it is her remark that she is ordinary that sets the climax forward) she truly changes and grows and becomes a better person. Ryland is in the picture, yes, but she is the one that really changes herself through her arc. Her entire change is her own, and she’s a very compelling character as she tries to determine — what does it mean to be extraordinary?  It’s a compelling question and one that Werlin explains — but does not give a definite answer to — throughout the narrative.

The other characters are strong as well. I loved how Ryland’s actions are not written off simply as “being a boy” but shown as cruel and heartless and inexcusable, how the reader can see Phoebe’s choices and feelings towards him but also see his many cruel qualities. Mallory is a smart girl, strong and creative but buckling under the “powers that will be” as she tries to understand her new life and her life.

In regards to the plot, Nancy Werlin explains to the reader what Ryland and Mallory are long before Phoebe discovers the truth, and the review blurbs give away a few spoilers as well. So essentially you cannot enter this book without  knowing some things about the truth and the role that faeries play in the story. But the plot is still intriquing and twisting, and even as we are one step ahead of Phoebe and can figure out the clues faster than she can, it’s still a riveting read, and I loved how Werlin trusted her readers to understand the mystery long before the characters did. The climax in particular is especially chilling and poignant. I also loved the ending, which is perfect as well as bittersweet.

The mythology that Werlin injects into the story is also impressive, and the Rothschild family (who Phoebe and her parents are descendants of) were real people. That made the mythology much more fascinating even as the author took some liberties with the original stories. Google Mayer Rothschild and you’ll see how interesting Werlin made his and his family’s story (because usually stories about people who start banking empires….well, they can be a bit boring). The world building is strong and everything made sense in the end.

Werlin’s writing is strong, and it is evident that she is an experienced writer. (She has published many books prior to Extraordinary.)

I really did enjoy this heartwarming and interesting book for it’s unique take on faeries and its chilling, elegant story.

4.5 stars.





Across the Universe by Beth Revis

5 04 2012

Across the Universe by Beth Revis

A love made out of time. A spaceship built of secrets and murder.
Seventeen-year-old Amy joins her parents as frozen cargo aboard the vast ship Godspeed and expects to awaken on a new planet, three hundred years into the future. Never could she have known that her frozen slumber would come to an end fifty years too soon and she would be thrust into the brave new world of a spaceship that lives by its own rules.
Amy quickly realizes that her reawakening was no mere computer malfunction. Someone — one of the few thousand inhabitants of the spaceship — tried to kill her. And if Amy doesn’t do something soon, her parents will be next.
Now Amy must race to unlock Godspeed’s hidden secrets. But out of the list of murder suspects, there’s only one that really matters: Elder, the future leader of the ship and the love she could have never seen coming.

In a nutshell, Across the Universe is a space opera. I’ll quickly call upon dictionary.com to define the word.  It defines space opera is this: “a science fiction drama, such as a film or television programme, esp. one dealing with interplanetary flight”. And to be truthful, if you remove the definition of “film or television programme” with “book” you have this story. Ut’s a science fiction drama that deals with interplanetary flight.

Space operas seem to becoming more popular in YA now, with titles like Glow and the upcoming release Starglass. It will be interesting to see if they stay popular, but at the moment it seems that they are holding strong, with more sci-fi planetary titles coming out and more being sold.

But I digressed, so let me return to what I thought about the book.

Across the Universe is a strong action thriller for sure, and if you read it based simply on pure adrenaline it would be a fast and interesting read. The action scenes are quick and fast, they keep you interested and are well written. The action scenes may have been my favorite part of the book.

But the rest of the book….not so much.

I found the plot to be fairly predictable. The “real baddie” is easy to guess and his reveal is far from a surprise.  Who unplugged Amy is also easy to figure out. Revis attempts a bit of foreshadowing but most of it doesn’t succeed and is too obvious. The “secrets” that form around the ship are easy to guess as well and many of them are tropes I’ve seem before (contaminated water, using forms of mind-control, etc). I found the plot to be pretty dragging and less of the science fiction epic that I had expected.

The characters….Hmm. I will say that my favorite character in this entire book dies, and if you’ve read the book it will be easy to guess which one. Amy and Elder seemed to be pretty decent characters. Elder’s journey — discovering that his mentor was not all that he expected and that his whole life is essentially a lie — isn’t that fresh but it’s a good read. I preferred Amy’s journey better, seeing as she coped and recovered in a new world, and I related to her more than Elder and really enjoyed how she reacted with being separated from her parents. I also didn’t really like the romance (which isn’t a shocker for me, but I really disliked the romance in this book). Elder seemed like he just suddenly started loving Amy and Amy seemed like she just started realizing he was around. I did like their relationship, however, and how they interacted around one another, even as they seemed more like friends than lovers.

And the truth is, the ending is pretty cheesy, and how the characters act (I’ll just say there are some pretty soppy reminders to “stay together forever”) seemed out of their characters.

Revis’s writing is really just fine, easy enough to read but sometimes chunky and fragmented. She has a lot of room for improvement but I think in her next few novels her writing will become better (as the old saying says: “every book is better than the last”).

I personally did not really enjoy this book, but if you are interested in science fiction, fantasy, space, romance, and the “space opera” it would be worth picking up. I will note that I am curious how this series continues and I will try and read the second book at some point. Essentially, this book wasn’t for me but some people will like it.

Three stars.

 





Stupid Fast by Geoff Herbach

27 03 2012

My name is Felton Reinstein, which is not a fast name. But last November, my voice finally dropped and I grew all this hair and I got stupid fast. Fast like a donkey. Zing!
Now they want me, the guy they used to call Squirrel Nut, to try out for the football team. With the jocks. But will that fix my mom? Make my brother stop dressing like a pirate? Most importantly, will it get me girls — especially Aleah?
So I train. And I run. And I sneak off to Aleah’s house in the night. But deep down I know I can’t run forever. And I wonder what will happen when I finally have to stop. 

Felton’s growing up. He’s always been given the unfortunate nickname of “Squirrel Nuts”, but all of a sudden he’s growing. He’s shot up a few feet, his voice has deepened, hair has started to grow all around his body. As he’s grown, his talent for athlethics has grown: he’s amazingly fast, “stupid fast”. The football coaches are impressed and want him on their teams, but Felton’s not even sure he wants to play football. He just wants to run, run away from his family situation and run towards freedom and towards relationships (hopefully with the pretty piano player, Aleah).

This is a book that no doubt has oodles of boy appeal. The appeal is basically dripping everywhere, from the cover to the blurb to the story itself. I am not a boy, obviously, and I am not a football player. Originally I had my doubts about the book, as it seemed to be so perfectly marketed towards boys and out of my range. But the good reviews for Stupid Fast kept piping up, and it won a Cyblis in Young Adult Fiction last year. And I can understand the hype perfectly.

This book, while being marketed to boys for sure, is a very impressive read that I think girls will also read and enjoy.

Some male main characters in YA tend to be unrealistic; they’re too funny or they make too many crude jokes/think of inappropriate topics, etc. There are lovely boys, as well, but in many stories where the male character is the central character (not a supporting character) the humor is amped up a thousand times and the boy starts to feel unrealistic. This is not the case here. Felton is humorous, for sure; he cracks jokes and he can be crude at times. But he’s also more than just jokes and inappropriate humor: he’s sensitive and is a three-dimensional main character, acting like a normal boy with feelings and emotions. And on the other end, he’s not too sensitive and emotional, making for a relatable character.

I really liked the perspective between Felton and Aleah’s relationship. There’s no instalove here, simply a slow relationship that grows. Felton admires Aleah, for her impressive piano playing, but at the same time he’s a bit afraid of her, as they are in two completely different social groups. But slowly the two become friends with crushes on each other and then they start to date. It’s a really sweet and cute subplot and I really enjoyed the romance. Their relationship when the book ends (after a few events have occurred to distance them from each other) is also very realistic and sweet.

And the family story! So many times we complain about parents in YA, how they’ve simply been killed off or are barely present. The family story in Stupid Fast is very strong and very sweet, with a realistic portrayal of mental illness. The story is complex and it’s a fun one to discover so I’ll simply explain the basics: Felton lives with his mother, Jerri, who married young and has lately fallen into a descent of confusion, and his younger brother Andrew, who is a piano player like Aleah. The story is so rich and complex and so, so realistic.

Herbach’s writing is strong as well. He sounds like a teen, using slang and swear words and quick, fluid descriptions. His writing is easy to read and to the point; it’s sparse but still rich and full. And best of all, it sounds like a boy.

If there is one thing that I disliked about this book, one thing that made me bump the book down .5 stars, was that at the beginning I felt disoriented. For about the first five chapters, I felt confused and I felt like the book was just another male-oriented book I would dislike. Obviously as I continued, I started to love the book. But this original issue made me drop the book down just a tiny bit.

Stupid Fast is a clever, original book that I really adored. It’ll be perfect for both boys and girls alike. I’m so excited it won the Cyblis; hopefully more people will be interested in this fantastic, quick read. And I can’t wait to read the companion novel, again featuring Felton.

Four point five stars.





The Survival Kit by Donna Freitas

23 03 2012

When Rose’s mom dies, she leaves behind a brown paper bag labeled Rose’s Survival Kit. Inside the bag, Rose finds an iPod, with a to-be-determined playlist; a picture of peonies, for growing; a crystal heart, for loving; a paper star, for making a wish; and a  paper kite, for letting go.
As Rose ponders the meaning of each item, she finds herself returning again and again to an unexpected source of comfort. Will is her family’s gardener, the school hockey star, and the only person who really understands what she’s going through. Can loss lead to love?

 Rose was always close to her mother. After her mother dies from cancer, she and her family (her father & older brother Jim) must recover from her death. Rose’s mother was infamous for making Survival Kits for the parents of children she taught. These kits contained items to help the parents through their difficulties of missing their children and they were very popular. Rose discovers one of these kits in her closet, containing six items that will allow her to move on from her grief. As she tries to break out of the grief and return to her normal life, she wonders if she can ever love again. 

Now, this book came recommended heavily. I figured that since I enjoy contemporary fiction it would be a good read for me. The theme of grief, while important, has been a bit overused in fiction as of late, and the romance (a key part) isn’t my forte. I found myself disliking the book quite a bit even as I liked some parts. 

In the end, I feel kind of unsure on what I think. 

I’ll start with the good. The characters were all very unique. Where Freitas could have fallen into stereotypes – cheereladers, football boyfriends – she managed to subvert clichés and make them unique, original characters that avoided tropes. However, I felt like most of the characters didn’t get much development. Rose and Will developed, changing as they continued their (very cute) romance. But the other characters seemed static, never changing or developing. I also felt like I didn’t know many of the characters. Rose and Will had personalities and I understood their feelings, families, and histories. But the others – like Rose’s three best friends – never seemed to even really be developed. They were simply there, almost like props, just to move the story along. 

For the plot, it was yes, a bit predictable. I expected it to be predictable almost instantly, though I may have been being cynical. But it was sweet, and the romance made me smile. The romance is also very well developed, forming over a long period of time instead of the dreaded “instalove” formula that appears in so many books. There were some things that seemed off, however. The Dad’s sudden change is very predictable and his character seemed to suddenly change after his pivotal event. I felt like the climax of the story was also a little off, as it was all based around one event (the dad’s pivotal moment). However, the story was sweet and it would make a nice fit for romance fans. 

The writing was nice, smooth and easy to read. I thought that Freitas’s authors note also added a bit to the story (read: always read the authors notes!). She explained that the Survival Kits actually did exist. Her mother, whose situation parallels some parts of the story (she sadly also died from cancer) created the Survival Kits for her friends and family, and like Rose’s fictional mother, became infamous for her kits. I thought that changed my reading of the book a bit, as I could see it more as an semi-autobiographical novel as well as a sweet romantic read. 

One final note: I would absolutely love to get my own Survival Kit someday