Estelle: Paradise by Jill S. Alexander

Paradise by Jill S AlexanderParadise by Jill S. Alexander
Publication Date: July 5, 2011
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Pages: 256
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: country music, Texas, pressure from parents, siblings, romance
Format read: Borrowed from library.

Summary: The only think Paisley has ever wanted to do was be a drummer. Right now, she’s playing in a country band with friends and they hope to make waves at Texapalooza music fest. Luckily, they are able to find a new lead singer in time — the gorgeous and talented Paradise, but how long can she keep her dreams a secret from her parents?

I’m pretty much convinced that in some past life I was in love with a cowboy.

Because I find them so attractive. (Like, I may drool a little bit.) And I’m from New Jersey! There are no cowboys in Jersey, friends. (In case, you didn’t know.) And the only one I know if in New York is the Naked Cowboy and he just does not do it for me. But oh gosh, when they can sing. I’m a goner.

Paradise (real name: Gabriela) embodies the spirit of country music and every single reason why cowboys are such a prize.

He’s tough, he’s teasing, and this one plays a mean accordion. Yep, you heard me right. When Paradise shows up to try out for the band, the other members are not so sure it’s going to work out. But he has the voice and he brings a unique edge, and Paisley can’t keep her eyes off of him.

For Paisley, being into something (someone?) else is a surprise because her life is drumming. A passion she has to keep a secret from her parents because they would never approve of her acting so un-ladylike or hanging out with losers like Michael Waylon. Actually, it’s only Paisley’s mom that feels that way. Her dad is pretty laidback, but pretty much lets his wife call the shots. Not in an absent way either… he tries to maintain the peace and is probably a lot more intuitive than everyone gives him credit for.

Paisley’s mom is pretty controlling of her and her sister, Lacey. Both girls were given purity rings at a young age, and Lacey is being forced to try out for various song choirs even though all she wants to do is open a beauty salon. This parental pressure, this close-mindedness does come from a genuine place but it makes it tough for both girls to embrace who they really are. They are forced to lie and sneak around to be happy, and that’s starting to get very tough to continue.

So while Paisley’s attraction to Paradise does heat up many passages in the book, the biggest conflict in Paradise is these two sisters finding the strength to stand up for what they want without hurting anyone in the process. Paradise doesn’t only offer his warm embrace, but is a huge influence on Paisley as he encourages her to be “wide open” with her life and work hardest on what’s best for her.

Interlaced through the story are lyrics from Cal, a shy guitarist, and I liked this breakup between chapters because we got to learn about his character and also get an outsider’s view on some of the events that occur throughout the story. Lacey and Paisley also have a feisty and fresh relationship for sisters, and I enjoyed the scenes shared between the two.

But warning, warning! There is a curveball of an ending, like oh-gee did that really just happen? I don’t recall ever being that blindsided in a book, and after thinking about it pretty obsessively, I’m still unsure of the author’s choice. Had it been me, I would have ended things a little differently.

I wish I could tell you more, but instead, I’m going to urge you to pick this one up. It’s not every day that a young adult book features a book with such Southern roots (with some Latin flair)… it’s a fresh and different and, even though, the fears and conclusions Paisley must come to within her family unit and for herself are nothing ground-breaking, Alexander makes them approachable and as accurate as possible.

Also special bonus music time. Jason Aldean’s “Wide Open” is the perfect anthem for this story.

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Estelle: Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann BrasharesSisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: June 14, 2011
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 349
Target audience: Mature YA/adult
Keywords: friendship, marriage, secrets, traveling pants
Format read: Paperback I bought.

Summary: A return to the friendship of Lena, Carmen, Tibby, and Bridget — four girls connected by their long history together and also a pair of pants that seemed to magically fit all of them for a few summers in a row. So what has happened now that all of them have become true grown ups?

I bought this book on a whim this past week because I was looking for some inspiration for writing a matron of honor speech. While I didn’t use any quotes from the book like I was originally planning to, it felt so fitting to spend some free time revisiting four friendships that really shaped my childhood as I prepped for the wedding of my best friend — a gal I’ve known since I was 5 years old. (Ironically my best friend has my original copy from when I lent it to her.)

I, first, read Sisterhood Everlasting when it was initially released in 2011. I remember I was totally frozen in place on my couch in our old house reading and reading until I got through the whole thing in one night. I just had to see how it ended. I’m happy to say that book was just as addicting the second time around, even if it is surprisingly sad.

Even though the girls (who I thought of as the next-gen Baby-Sitters Club) went through a fair share of drama through high school and college, I always thought the book boasted about the positivity of female friendships. So to experience such a change in Sisterhood Everlasting where the girls are all living in separate places, not getting together very frequently,  Tibby totally MIA, and dating people the others don’t approve of — as a dedicated fan of the series, you feel genuinely gutted.

“Growing up is hard on friendships,” Carmen says in the very beginning.

I know with too much experience how true this statement can be but part of me was hoping for the happily ever after scenario for these four. But Brashares has the opportunity to showcase some top notch writing because of this choice — the grown up thoughts (Is this who I really want to marry? Am I really happy in this job? Why do things not feel like they used to?), the small nods to the past, and even the gorgeous imagery (I need to get to Greece) — that she wasn’t always able to use when writing for a younger audience. Like the girls, her writing most definitely matured.

With Carmen an actress in NYC, Lena teaching in Rhode Island, Bee unable to settle down in California, and Tibby off in Australia — the girls are unable to find the common ground they once had with each other (even after the pants went missing). When Tibby surprises them with a reunion in Greece, the three feel this is what they really need until they arrive in Greece and things totally spiral out of control. When the girls go their separate ways once again, it feels like all hope is lost until each of them embark on their own journey undoubtably leading them to answer the same question: can they regain what they had and move forward together?

While I didn’t always agree with Brashares’ characterizations (I don’t think Carmen could ever be a size zero or tone down her Latina pride; Lena just seemed way TOO sad and isolated), I do think she did well when it came to capturing the spirits of these characters we love and showing just how much time can change us — to the point where we might not even recognize ourselves. It’s tough to see on the page, but almost necessary, because there are so many factors that come into play when it comes to friendships, too many distractions, and at some point, friendship takes a little bit more of a push than it has to when you were kids hanging out in the same neighborhood every day.

Whether you remember reading the Sisterhood series way back when or you are looking for a book about female friendships that run deep, Sisterhood Everlasting provides a roller coaster of heartbreaking, sweet, and honest moments as so many realizations are made. For me, it was so nice to spend 300 more pages reuniting with some of my favorite girls with the added reassurance that fighting for friendships is so important.

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Estelle: Small Town Sinners by Melissa Walker

Small Town Sinners by Melissa C WalkerSmall Town Sinners by Melissa C. Walker ( web | twitter )
Publication Date: July 19, 2011
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 259
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: religion, prejudices, parents and their children
Format read: Borrowed from library

Summary: Lacey has been looking forward to auditioning for top billing of her church’s Hell House since as long as she can remember. But when a boy from her childhood comes back to town and things begin changing in her circle of friends, she starts to wonder about faith and what she has always been taught.

For those of you who didn’t know (I didn’t) — Hell Houses really exist. Designed to be a sort of Haunted House, it’s a live theater featuring different scenes (gay marriage, abortion, drunk driving) that are taken to new heights of horrifying in hopes of helping others to see “the light”. Our main character, Lacey, believes in the power of the church, her father (the children’s pastor), and Hell Houses. She believes she will be saving souls. (And all she had ever dreamed about is being the “Abortion Girl”.)

As a liberal person whose stance on religion differs from day to day, there were many things about Lacey and her friends that baffled me. I almost felt like they were living in a 1950s small town bubble while present day went on without them. (1 billion points to Walker for environment creation.) And their voices – especially Lacey’s and her best friend Starla Joy – were downright robotic (although passionate) as if reciting words and phrases directly from the Bible.

I don’t want to seem disrespectful. Religion is a very personal thing and we all have the luxury and freedom to believe what we want. But it was downright frustrating to hear how small minded these folks were. (Another billion points to Walker for voice and characterization.) Ty, a childhood friend of Lacey’s, coming back to town was like a much needed gust/hurricane of fresh air. I admire him for being so patient and artfully tiptoeing around his own truths and beliefs that might cause others to shun him. I’m not sure I would have been able to do the same.

There are 2 specific events that cause Lacey much grief and start her down this road of exploration. I’m so with her. It didn’t make sense that some people who were cruel did not face certain consequences. Or how quickly people turned on each other in times when support was needed. I’m being completely vague, I know, but I don’t want to give anything away. While Lacey struggles with her own beliefs (which aren’t necessarily the ones she has been spoonfed her whole life), her relationship with her family is changing too. As someone who was brought up to never question anything, suddenly her mind can’t stop wandering. Does she have to have everything figured out because of a passage in the Bible or is everything a case by case basis? If you eliminate the religious aspect, this is an issue all kids deal with when it comes to their parents – when is the right time to trust your instincts and what they have taught you so you can come to your own conclusions? (We see both sides here.)

I firmly believe in embarking on your own journey to figure out your faith — whether it be in religion or humanity or both. Walker truly gets Lacey and how her journey will be bumpy and difficult, causing her to ping pong between what she knows and what she feels is right. It’s equally hard for parents to come to terms with their child coming into their own. It’s scary and letting go is sometimes granting understanding, flexibility, and the opportunity to speak your mind without judgement. Or else risk resentment and detachment.

Small Town Sinners is a well-written and engrossing coming of age story. Despite the religious background (that continued to rub me the wrong way), Walker hits on many relevant issues that affect, frankly, anyone who is breathing. Acceptance, forgiveness, understanding, trust, bravery, and taking the first step in your own direction.

“Can anyone see the world any other way but through their own personal lens?”

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Estelle: Awaken by Katie Kacvinsky

Awaken by Katie Kacvinksy: Review from RatherBeReadingBlog.comAwaken by Katie Kacvinsky
Publication Date: May 30, 2011
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books for Children
Pages: 309
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: technology, digital age, dystopian
Format read: Borrowed from the library.

Summary: The year is 2060 and the world and everyone’s life is basically run by a computer. Maddie lives her life on a computer screen, getting to formulate just how people perceive her. It’s not until she meets Justin that she begins to get curious about the outside world and decides to meet him at a study group. Instantly, she wants more than just communicating with him through a computer screen.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am constantly checking my phone for Twitter updates and emails, and turning on my laptop in the evening after staring at a desktop for eight hours straight during work. But what if that was all we had? What if no one went out for walks on the beach? Or hung out in a coffee shop? Or went shopping at the mall and just laid on their front lawn reading a book?

Life like that seems pretty dark and dismal, doesn’t it?

Kacvinsky has built a startling world, one that is only 48 years from now. That’s not that far away. In fact, if this book was real life, my generation would be Maddie’s mother, a woman who has her favorite novels from the past tucked away, a woman who gifts her daughter a blank journal and hands off these books like golden treasures when the time is right. Maddie’s mother doesn’t forget the simplicity of the past and hopes to pass that on to Maddie, even if her husband and Maddie’s father has had a huge hand in this push toward the digital life as leader of the digital schools.

While Kacvinsky doesn’t build a world quite as concrete as Megan McCafferty’s Bumped series and goes a tad overboard with the ‘evils of technology’ theme (We get it, we get it, I kept muttering to myself), she does a deft job of creating this character who is a victim of her time and the world’s dependency on digital. But sometimes these feelings pop up and she wonders why she can’t just go outside for a date instead of pretend she’s outside on a date and she’s stuck in this conundrum. Does she even know who she is because she’s so busy creating this image for herself? Has making things so easy actually made life incredibly hard?

Meeting Justin in person changes all of that. He’s part of a group that wants to revive the old way of living. Taking time to enjoy and not rushing through life just because. Connecting with people. Talking to people face-to-face. Spending time near people, looking straight in their eyes and not at a pixelated screen. But there is that problem of who her dad is and how she’s on probation and watched even more than the normal kid. They are both off-limits to each other in ways and it makes their chemistry that much more tangible and fiery.

I’m not normally one for dystopians but Kacvinsky’s premise hit close to home. While I love to learn the latest gadgets and have made some of my closest friends through social media, I still know how much I treasure watching someone’s face when they talk, hearing their laugh, and watching their hands move in excitement or frustration. While I know personally just how well you can get to know someone with all the advancements we have today, I want nothing more to be able to show up in my car and go bowling and out for a glass of wine with them.

Sometimes I fear all of this is just a distraction, one that will cause me to miss the real moments in life and make me lazy when it comes to the important things. Kacvinsky’s novel is also about control and how we have to work hard to believe in our own abilities to connect and not rely on machines to do everything for us. Or we’ll just become robots, or worse, rolling around on a cruise ship in the sky like the humans in Pixar’s Wall-E.

Everyone has something to fight for in Awaken, even if they don’t know it yet. Though at times long-winded, Kacvinsky has introduced a thought-provoking premise with brave characters standing up to powerful forces while managing to smoothly interject a budding romance. I, for one, can’t wait to see how it all ends in part 2 (which comes out November 20).

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Magan: Stay with Me by Paul Griffin

books about boy going to jail, books about young boy killing a man, books about dogs

Stay with Me by Paul Griffin
Release Date: September 8, 2011
Pages: 304
Target Audience: Young Adult
How I found out about it: It was on the new releases shelf at my local library.
Format: Hardcover from the library.

Summary:  Cece and Mack are the two most unlikely fifteen-year-olds to fall in love; Cece is a motivated, brilliant student and Mack is a high-school drop out with a record. They’re figuring out how perfect they are for one another when things suddenly go wrong when Mack makes a terrible mistake that separates them forever.


I didn’t know much about Stay with Me when I picked it up from the library. I’ll be honest and say that it was a brand new book and I got really excited to be the first person to read the crisp, new pages. I was immediately caught up in the story becauseStay With Me was told from Mack and Cece’s perspective. I thought the prologue was the climax of the story, therefore I’d know exactly which day everything changed in Mack and Cece’s relationship.

Boy was I wrong.

When the climax of the story hit, Cece and Mack were at the height of their relationship. Each of them was struggling to understand what the other person saw in them. Mack didn’t understand how such a beautiful girl could overlook that he dropped out of school and had spent some time in jail. Cece is brilliant, but maybe carries a few more pounds than she should, and can’t see how a guy as good-looking as Mack would want her.  Everyone (but Mack) sees the good in Mack and believes that he will make something of himself.

Until the day that it all goes downhill and Mack does something that rips him away from Cece.

Cece is left waiting on Mack to show up, but he has no way to let her know what happened. Mack begins to think that Cece will be better off if she just continues to live her life and forget he ever existed.  I can’t tell you what happens. I just can’t. But I will say that Stay With Me evoked a strong moral struggle inside of me. I was rooting so much for Mack and Cece, but knowing what happened – if it happened in real life – there would be no perfect ending for them.

Stay with Me is a beautiful story about two people who live very different lives than me. It’s a story about redemption and how sometimes we make choices and do things that can utterly change the course of our lives. I loved the side story of the pit bulls. I’m a huge dog lover and Mack has this way with dogs – taking strays or those left to die after fights, nursing them back to life, and training them to be well-behaved animals.  The story of the dogs parallels Mack’s life so well – he’s been abandoned by his mother, left beat down by his dad, and he doesn’t believe he can do anything good in his life. He does make a wrong decision and does something so incredibly life-altering, but like the dogs – there’s hope that he can be redeemed.

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Estelle: The Summer of Firsts and Lasts by Terra Elan McVoy

The Summer of Firsts and Lasts by Terra Elan McVoy
Publication Date: May 3, 2011
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Pages: 423
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: summer camp, sisters, first love, independence
Format read: Hardcover borrowed from the libary.
How I found out about it: Featured at my B&N this summer.

Summary: Sisters Calla, Violet, and Daisy (yes, all named after flowers) attend the same summer camp but all have very different experiences.

This book is the ultimate as far as light, summery YAs are concerned.

First: the setting. Three glorious weeks at a summer camp where you pick a concentration: writing, running, nature. When I was young I only attended day camps that ran for a few weeks, and McVoy had me secretly hating my parents for never sending me away to an overnight place like this one. (If there are any camps like this for 27-year olds, let me know because I am game!)

Second: the boys. Now, my husband’s name is James so I always feel secretly proud when there is a love interest in a book that shares his name (see: Unbreak My Heart). Middle sister Violet reunites with James after he skips a year of camp… although now he’s a counselor — a big no-no. Campers and counselors can’t date. Or make out. Or stare at each other from across the room and feel all tingley inside? Yum, their story was delicious. Each sister has some kind of boy in their life in some capacity and I really liked seeing the different stages the three were in.

Third: the drama. Now it wouldn’t be summer camp without some bitchy girls, unavailable guys, and a rebellious girl who loves to be the center of attention. Instead of being a counselor, Calla has a paying job in the camp’s office and is thoroughly worried about being perfect, making a good impression, and making the best out of camp even though her job duties take her away from the camp activities she has grown to look forward to year after year. Violet buddies up with a new girl who keeps getting into trouble, and Daisy is dealing with girls who are so jealous of her they will stop at nothing to humilate her. While each sister goes through their own thing, they do overlap with one another and provide support and friction at the same time.

At the core, this book is about the bonds of sisters. And it really made me miss mine. (We’re five years apart and don’t see each other that much because she’s in school and I’m a “grown up”.) I missed the days when I used to come home after school and see my sister or even the days during the summer when we hung out at the beach. It kind of just made me miss home. At the back of the book, McVoy shares that she indeed is part of a trio of sisters and I could tell. They were some very tender, sweet moments as well as those inevitable ragey ones. (By alternating chapters between the three, we were able to find out the inside thoughts each had about the other and I loved being privy to this insight.)

Best of all, McVoy shocked me completely with her ending. Reading it was just as disruptive as what happens to the girls (ohh the suspense) and it fit the situation perfectly. All I could think was “bravo” for taking the road less traveled.

I could see you reading this book on the beach (like I did), in the fall, or even with some hot chocolate in the winter. It doesn’t need to be summer to feel the excitement and freedom that the season and this book radiates.

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