Ashes to Ashes by Melissa Walker ( web | twitter )
Publication Date: December 23, 2013
Publisher: Katherine Tegan Books (Harper)
Target audience: Young adult, Paranormal
Keywords: afterlife, purgatory, young death
Format read: ARC borrowed from Jamie! (Thanks!)
Summary: A terrible car accident sends Callie to Prism (a purgatory before she can reach heaven), where she is trained to bring peace to her nearest and dearest: her father (already a widow), her best friend, Carson, and her boyfriend, Nick. Being so close to these people and not being able to BE with them is difficult, especially as she starts to piece together details of her life she never realized existed before. And then there is her spirit guide, Thatcher, who she feels immediately connected to. As he tries to teach her the proper way to bring peace to those left on Earth, she is distracted by others in the Prism who want to break all the rules.
As a huge fan of Melissa Walker’s contemporary young adult novels, I was super intrigued when I heard she was releasing a paranormal as her next book. For starters, the cover is gorgeous and second, I love when authors I adore take a leap into a new genre, especially when it’s not my go-to genre. It gives me a chance to try something new as well.
It’s true that the “afterlife” novel kind of upsets me, and I’ve steered clear of them until I read The Catastrophic History of You and Me a few months ago. It’s sad to think of a character who is dead, and has no hopes of returning to her regular living life. It probably depresses me more than anything, but I was super swept up in Jess Rothenberg‘s vision for the afterlife (unlimited pizza, reclaiming of prized possessions from the past, etc.) and I found myself really enjoying the story, knowing the main character was making a second life for herself.
Melissa’s version of the afterlife (this in-between before heaven) is called Prism, and I’ll be honest it’s sort of a lonely place. Callie is immediately heartbroken to discover her deceased mother is not waiting there for her with open arms. (She missed her crossing over.) In Prism, Callie’s main priority is granting peace to those she left behind, and when she is not haunting Earth doing that, she is to spend time alone in her “space” (which looks a lot like her bedroom back home), where she is not allowed to invite anyone in to spend time with her. I liked the idea of returning to friends and family and helping them move forward, but the rest of it felt so stark and gray.
The one bright light for Callie is Thatcher, assigned to help her with her duties back on Earth. When Callie died, she was deeply in love with Nick, but it seems as soon as she runs into Thatcher, she immediately forgets about Nick and is fixated on this looming figure in Prism. He’s not very sensitive to Callie and her grieving, and he’s not exactly forthcoming with any of details of his own life. But still, something draws her to him. While his attitude toward her makes sense later on, I still didn’t buy Callie moving on so quickly from Nick to Thatcher and I could have used more meat in this situation because I simply wasn’t convinced.
To top it all off, Callie is also lured by the other kids in Prism. The ones who want to stay young forever, and believe they know exactly how to continue their life on Earth after death. This part of the story was a bit too black or white for me; I half expected a Sharks vs. Jets musical dance off with Callie caught in the middle. Thatcher tried to warn her away from “the enemy” but Callie couldn’t help but be curious. I didn’t blame her. Prism seemed kind of boring.
Something about these intertwining plot lines didn’t entirely click for me. Was it a structural issue? Too much emphasis on one thing and not on the other? I’m not sure. Plus Callie’s voice felt so much older than it should, and I had to remind myself many times that she was only a teenager. As I moved toward the ending there were many developments I guessed correctly but I was left to wonder how things could possibly wrap up in book 2 when so much material was spent on one thing. (Am I being too mysterious?)
Despite the challenges I had with Ashes to Ashes, Melissa’s world building was definitely creative (bonus: Charleston setting!) and I also loved how she interjected slight changes in people’s pronunciation of certain words (i.e. Prism vs. prison), indicating their deeper feelings. Still, I wish there had been less insta-love, and more of the genuineness I’ve come to appreciate in Walker’s books. I have no idea where Book 2 will take these characters, but I’m still willing to invest my time to follow along.
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Other RBR reviews of Walker’s books: Lovestruck Summer | Unbreak My Heart | Small Town Sinners
Heartbeat by Elizabeth Scott ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Publisher: Harlequin Teen
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: parental death, grief, step-parents
Format read: ARC paperback reviewed at BEA in May 2013.
Summary: When her pregnant mom dies suddenly from a stroke, Emma is completely distraught, and even more so when her stepfather, Dan, decides to have her mother’s body kept alive by machines in an effort to help their unborn baby survive. She completely shuts everyone and everything out of her life except Olivia (her best friend) and surprisingly, Caleb — a boy from school known for his rebellious acts.
“I think at a certain point you can choose to sort of fall from this or you can choose to rise.” – Lea Michele
I hope you don’t think it’s hokey that I’m using that quote to start off this review. But it just so happened Michele was making her first TV interview appearance a few days after I finished Heartbeat and everything she was saying aligned so well with the heavy subject matter tackled in Heartbeat: grief and what we do afterward.
Heartbeat begins shortly after Emma’s mom dies and Emma hasn’t gotten to that point that Michele talks about. Instead Emma’s life as she knows it — ruled by school deadlines and grades and the future — has taken a sudden nosedive into an abyss of not caring. Not caring about school, not caring about college prospects, and most definitely not caring about her step-father, Dan.
As far as non-biological parents go, it’s obvious from Emma’s memories and hurt feelings that Dan was a perfectly attentive and super loving father (she is so lucky). These good moments seem to disappear the minute Dan makes a very difficult decision without asking her opinion. In order to keep Emma’s unborn sibling alive, Dan chooses to keep her mother’s body hooked up to machines to ensure a better chance of survival for this child.
Can you imagine seeing your dead mother every single day, working enough to keep a baby alive but not quite enough to wake up and speak to you again? For Emma, it’s like part of the greiving process is put on hold because the small tiny possibility that her mom could wake up still pops up. So she’s angry at Dan — angry because she doesn’t think he knows how her mom really felt about anything and angry because of this baby that will never know his mother.
Scott’s book largely consists of Emma’s internalizations because most of her actions have become routine: make it through school, see Mom, ignore Dan, be comforted by her best friend, Olivia. Rinse and repeat. Misunderstood bad boy, Caleb, shakes things up when he shows up volunteering at the hospital. Emma is drawn to him, and it’s their budding friendship and his ability to relate to what she is going through that gives her something to think about other than her mother. Exactly the first tiny step she needs.
Emma’s journey of moving ahead and moving on is not smooth. Not even close. She is fixated on so many small details, probably trying to find a way to make such a non-sensical thing like death make sense. While understandable, I felt this was frustrating as a reader. It was like I knew what she was thinking before she thought it; even once she hit certain ephiphanies, Emma continued to go back and forth with her feelings. There were so many times I wanted Dan to rush in and pull rank; an adult really needed to. She was a struggling child, and blatantly disrespected Dan and her mom’s marriage on multiple occasions.
One thing I did appreciate was Emma’s friendship with Olivia (who hated all techy things; I loved this detail). I think Scott did a realistic job of portraying two girls who suddenly have very different lives. How do you give comfort to a friend when you haven’t experienced the same kind of heartbreak? How can you share your own problems when they seem so trivial compared to Emma’s situation? Emma and Olivia had a little bit of work, a bit of a struggle, and it was a conflict that felt so true to life.
None of the characters in Heartbeat are perfect, and while that portrayal felt spot-on (because who really knows how they are going to act until they are forced into this terrible situation), I wish I hadn’t felt quite so disconnected from Emma. The book is extremely fast-paced because the chapters are so compact, but Emma’s growth through the story didn’t progress quite the way I thought it should. I was never expecting her to be 100% okay but the “breakthrough” came very late in the story, and it felt off.
I do think Heartbeat is a very discussion worthy novel because of all the shades of gray it presents. Was Dan right in his decision? Is Emma being selfish? How do you figure out what the deceased wanted without second guessing yourself? There’s so much that’s intriging here and the chemistry between Emma and Caleb is great but, in the end, Heartbeat just didn’t have the emotional impact I was expecting.
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Into the Still Blue by Veronica Rossi (website | twitter)
Other Books Written by This Author: Under the Never Sky | Through the Ever Night
Publication Date: January 28, 2014
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: dystopian, contrasting worlds, trilogy, science fiction, fantasy
Format Read: ARC received from the publisher via Edelweiss. (Thank you!)
Summary: In Rossi’s final book of the series, Aria and Roar must bring their people together in order to save them. They attempt to cross into the still blue, but must make sacrifices and decisions that cause them great sadness and loss.
Please excuse me while I pick myself up off the floor from my hysterical weeping. 2013 was The Year Magan Did Not Finish Any Series. I’m not kidding. There are several I just haven’t been able to say good-bye to. I’m determined to have a bit more closure in 2014 so I’m (hesitantly) starting off the year by saying goodbye to Aria, Perry, and Roar.
I feel like I have to be so careful with my words because I don’t want to give anything away, especially for those of you who have yet to begin the series. One major strength of this third installation was Rossi’s ability to take an imperfect and broken world in which two vastly different cultures collided and bring them together. Were things always easy? No. Was there always peace? Certainly not. All of the differences and struggles definitely made the world richer and more interesting. Seeing how Aria and Perry were forced to bring their people together was absolutely incredible in Into the Still Blue.
In the previous books, there is definitely this sense that something BIG is going to happen, but there’s so much to understand about how Aria and Perry meet, fall in love, and the different dynamics of each people — the Dwellers and the Outsiders. But in ItSB, they’re running out of time. There’s no time to peddle around because everything could crumble around them. I loved the different snippets of each place they had to go and the struggles they had to overcome to achieve their goals. (Again, being super vague. Don’t want to ruin anything for you guys!) Rossi made sure everything was handled very realistically, without anything being too easy or convenient. I greatly admire this because she trusted her characters’ intelligence to work through any chaotic situation she laid before them.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Into the Still Blue is wanting to rush to find out what happens and how the story ends, but grappling with the fact that after you’ve turned that final page…it’s all over. It’s the worst dilemma a reader can be faced with. But let me reiterate that you should soak it all up, enjoy the journey, and let your heart experience all the emotions. Rossi’s work deserves to be appreciated.
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Hey-lo! It’s Tuesday and time to talk about New Year’s Resolutions! Do you do this every year, do you follow them, do they change? Well thanks to Broke and Bookish’s meme this week we are spilling the good stuff. We can’t wait to hear what all of you are hoping for and striving to accomplish in the next 12 months!
- Take a break from electronics. I am obsessed with my phone and my computer and it just needs to end. Ya know, life happens when you are staring at a screen and I want to discipline myself better when it comes to all of those things. This also leads to managing my time better so I can keep up with my writing, my side projects, and such. But it also means focusing on hobbies I haven’t been able to give much attention to like crafting and baking. (I think I cheated and put a whole lot of resolutions in 1.) If anyone has suggestions about this, please help me. (My husband and I thank you.)
- Finally get my money situation under control. This has been the first full year of James going to school and me working. And it wasn’t until a few months ago that something snapped in my head and I realized just how difficult this was going to be. In the past few months, I’m significantly cut down on shopping (for clothes and for books) and also tried to manage when I was going out with my friends and when James and I would be going out. Things seem to be slowly but surely looking up and I want to have at least a tiny savings to show for it by the end of the year. (This will be the year I finally learn, right?)
- Read in a different way. Whether it be picking up books from my shelves, re-reading, reading a non-fiction book at the same time, I need to make use of the books I already own and read what I want. Again, toward the end of last year if I didn’t like something I stopped reading and found what I did like. Life is too precious to stick with something you don’t like. And there are so many amazing, touching books out there. I want to find those. (This also leads to me writing reviews for books where I actually have something to say. What’s the point otherwise?)
- Nurture friendships. I need to stop focusing on the negative and focus on those who are there for me during the bad AND the boring times. (I am going to sing Frozen’s “Let It Go” to remind myself of this.)
- I don’t know what to title this last one, but I keep picturing myself a year from now and I just want to know that I tried new things, connected with new people, my friendships are on track, my marriage is getting stronger and stronger, and that I just enjoyed myself. Whether that’s finally hanging up new pictures of us in our apartment, getting a new coffee table, traveling to Boston for the first time in forever, or moving forward in other ways … I’m not sure but I’m ready and I’m pumped! (I’m also already counting down the days until Christmas. I’m a sad sad person, I know.)
- Develop a System for Choosing What to Read Next: Very often I find myself questioning what to read next. I stare at my shelves and just have no idea what to grab because seeing everything is … overwhelming. One of my go-to things-to-do is to search through my Goodreads to-read list and select one of the best rated books. I’d say that often works in my favor and I end up reading a book I love, but this can lead to a) me buying a book I don’t already own or b) being disappointed because there was so much book hype and I didn’t agree with the ratings. I need to find a better way of choosing what to read next. Any suggestions? My one idea is to make a list as I see something on my shelves and think “I should read that soon.”
- I Need to Learn to Say I Need More “Me” Time: Estelle can confirm this, but Dustyn and I are always, always on the go. ALWAYS. It feels like there’s rarely time to sit and be lazy or enjoy quiet time. We’re busy people who love to spend time with our families and friends. That’s not something I’m upset about; I love spending time with people. But, guys… I’m worn out. And no, that’s not just the pregnancy talking. I mentioned in my Q&A with Estelle that I’d like to be more welcoming and have people over more often. Maybe these two concepts can work together? We stay at home more, AND have people come visit us.
- Stop Spending Money: I have a shopping problem. I’m quite addicted to Pick Your Plum and Jane these days. I’m a sucker for a good sale. Dustyn and I made a list of house things we’d like to fix up or accomplish over the next year or so. I should apply that to myself as well and make a list of things I’d like to buy eventually or suggest to Dustyn when he asks what I’d like for my birthday. I did a much better job with this in 2013 than in previous years, but there’s still so much room for improvement here.
- Embrace Snail Mail: Something I started *trying* to implement at the end of 2013 was mailing out random cards to friends that were on my heart. I didn’t do it much, but I really want to continue dropping notes in the mail this year. Over the last year, I’ve been very fortunate to have received several extremely thoughtful notes from friends when I was having very down days. I’ve kept them and have them sitting in a special place as a reminder that there are people out there rooting and praying for me. That was a huge, huge lesson for me as it can feel like so much of our lives is based on competition — for example: who has more comments or visitors, who has a more clever idea and receives more recognition, etc., etc., etc. That, my friends, is draining. I’d rather focus on raising someone up, even if they’re “competition” per se, and encourage them to keep going.
- Be Realistic About My Reading Goal for 2014: And last but not least, I have to be honest and say that I have no idea what to expect of myself for how many books to aim to read. None whatsoever. I’m going to be a new mom. I’m potentially going to see my foster daughter returned to her biological family. I’m going to be working through a lot of change. I suppose more than anything, I should be saying that I will allow myself to work through that change and not put so much pressure on myself to be so composed through all of it. I’m going to be elated and I’m going to cry tears (of joy and sorrow). I’m not going to expect myself to pick up a book if that’s just not what I can do that day. But I do resolve to keep reading as books have potentially been some of my best friends through some of my roughest times.
What’s on your agenda for 2014?
Life in Outer Space by Melissa Keil ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: February 1, 2013
Publisher: Hardie Grant Egmont (AUS)
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: Australia, film geek, falling in love, friendship, parents
Format read: Review copy, originating with Mandee at Vegan YA Nerds.
Summary: Sam has three best friends, loves films, and wants to be a screenwriter. He’s totally okay with flying under the radar at school but not so okay with his parents, who are constantly fighting lately. When new girl Camillia shows up at school, he doesn’t think anything of it (except well, she’s gorgeous) until she becomes a part of their group and one of his closest friends. His life shifts from routine to unexpected with Mike’s mysterious behavior, his feelings for Camilla, and all those other changes that come along with high school.
If Sam saw my movie collection or knew that I barely got through the first Star Wars film, he wouldn’t make fun of me. Instead he would politely suggest we watch it, fill me in on all kind of behind-the-scenes facts, and make it a totally enjoyable experience, I’m sure. Enthusiasm like his can only be infectious and in Life in Outer Space, it totally is. While I felt a little out of my element with all Sam’s film references at first, I caught on and found myself totally enjoying them (and laughing too).
I think I might actually be a little bit in love with Sam. His love of movies reminded me of Dawson (I hope you know who this is) but he was never obnoxiously confident or super melodramatic. He internalized a lot, and I think that made his character completely endearing. Because he legit has no idea what to do when his best friend Scott starts acting super weird and distant, and he’s even more at a loss when he starts to fall for the person everyone wants to be friends with, Camilla.
Keil does a great job of introducing so many elements of life in one book: parents having problems, friends falling in love, the fear of what to do after high school is over, absent parents, not being afraid to try new things. It’s actually amazing how much is seamlessly (and thoughtfully) woven through this Life in Outer Space. It’s a true snapshot of life and all the messy feelings that come along with it.
There’s also this loyalty amongst friends that you don’t see too much in books these days. Sam is the guy you want in your corner. Even if it takes him a little time to react and confront someone, he truly cares about his friends and their well-being. You can tell that Scott, Adrian and Allison felt the same way; they all had each other’s backs and weren’t afraid to be honest with each other when they needed a good dose of it. Growing up is tough on friendships, and that was so apparent here.
Life in Outer Space is a book that I wanted to buy all of my friends (especially the ones who would love all the Star Wars jokes and horror movies). It had so much charm, so much heart, and reminded me why I loved to read so much and how sometimes book characters feel like your friends. This is not one to miss.
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