Estelle: The Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi

Summer I Wasn't Me by Jessica VerdiThe Summer I Wasn’t Me by Jessica Verdi ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Publisher: SourceBooks
Pages: 352
Target audience: young adult
Keywords: family, obligation, homosexuality, “de-gaying” camp, summer
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)
Other RBR reviews by this author: My Life After Now

Summary: Lexi is primed and ready to focus on controlling her sexuality for the better of her family. She arrives at New Horizons ready to make this work. Even meeting the beautiful and smart Carolyn doesn’t deter her at first. But when the methods of the camp start to unveil herself, she starts to believe they have no idea what they are doing despite their shiny track record. Who will she be after the summer is over?

Where Verdi’s debut, My Life After Now, felt cumbersome, her latest was focused, more streamlined in subject matter — making it one of those books I rarely wanted to put down. Sentencing your character to a summer at a “de-gaying” camp is certainly a form of cruel and unnecessary punishment and it came as a surprise that Lexi, a teenager from a small town in South Carolina whose dad has recently passed away, was so open to it. She’s not kicking and screaming and her mom isn’t some scary villain. She believes she’s doing right by her child because of the uber-religious and small-minded town they came from.

Shockingly enough, I found Lexi’s attitude admirable. She was so focused on keeping her tiny family together (her mom was suffering a ton since the death of her husband), making life as “simple” as possible that she was prepared to give “de-gaying” her best shot.

She might not like the rules (having to forgo her wardrobe for a pink uniform, lights out super early) but she sure as hell was going to follow them. A high point of The Summer I Wasn’t Me was the cast of characters that Verdi assembled to be in Lexi’s group — shy and determined David, the gorgeous and dreamy Carolyn, and comic relief and rebel Matthew. As they experience intense therapy and role playing sessions together, this group, despite their backgrounds and hopes for “recovery,” need each other. New Horizons is not a place you can get through on your own, and I really enjoyed watching their friendships develop, especially as the mission of the camp grew more questionable.

While Matthew is suspicious of New Horizons from the get-go, it takes Lexi a little while to realize things might not be as they seem. But she is understandably torn. Her mom has paid just about $10K for her to attend this camp, and change — be the best hetero woman she can be — and Lexi is positive that her ability to stay straight will right the wrongs of her mom’s depression and make their family whole again. How can she choose between family and being true to who she is? Isn’t that selfish of her? (It’s even strange as a reader because you are rooting for her to get what she wants… even if it’s against nature.) I was impressed with Lexi’s self-control from the beginning, especially after she realized she was attracted to Carolyn but I also wasn’t surprised her focus wavered after being objectified to the camp’s horrific methods.

With her feelings for Carolyn growing stronger and her suspicions that New Horizons isn’t exactly as advertised in their promo material, Lexi is faced with even more complex emotions and decisions to make. Here’s the thing: I was riveted and already horrified about the subject matter in The Summer I Wasn’t Me up until this point and when a few massive reveals were made, I could not wait to see how they would be handled. This novel may have started out as a simple story — a girl willing to sacrifice herself for good of her family — but as you get deeper into the story, the complex situations and emotions were not given a chance to dig as deeper as I would have liked. The momentum was on par for so long, and, unfortunately, just dropped off at the end — causing the intensity to poof into thin air.

A lot of times I campaign for “a little more” at the end of books because I’m selfish and don’t want my time to be up with these characters but in this instance, to create such a heavy situation that deserved attention and development and not fully execute it? It was the difference between a good read and a fantastic one. I like Verdi’s writing (The Great Gatsby references in this were a highlight) and I was glad to see a lot of growth between her first book and her second but I’ll be curious for the time she conquers a story that is driven more by well-developed characters and earned emotions rather than by a situation.

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P.S. One book I truly loved that deals with this subject was The Miseducation of Cameron Post. SO SO good.

Magan: Open Road Summer by Emery Lord, A Vlog Review

Howdy, y’all! Man it feels so incredibly wonderful to type these words. It feels so good to be here talking books. And yes, quite literally below, I talk books in my vlog. I’m really wanting to mix things up a bit and as I’m just on an altogether different schedule with a newborn, vlogs seem like the best solution for me right now. My hope is that it’s a) not boring for you and b) fun to watch. I really want your feedback about what you think so if you’ve got some, leave it below in the comments. Okay? Alright, let’s get started!

Book Review for Open Road Summer by Emery LordHighlights of Open Road Summer by Emery Lord:

  • Incredible friendships — something I want to see much, much more of in the books I read. I get kind of bogged down by the drama sometimes. Reagan and Dee are friendship gurus.
  • Mucho, mucho hotness in the form of Matt Finch. He’ll make you swoon. And laugh. And want to know him in real life.
  • A girl who is incredibly relatable because she’s made some stupid mistakes. Who hasn’t done something they regret? * cue the crickets*
  • ORS made me feel just about every emotion and made me miss my BFF, Estelle, somethin’ fierce.

A few quotes, as promised:

“He’s kind of beautiful, in an understated, comfortable-looking-way — the kind of guy who doesn’t mind seeing a rom-com with you and gives you his hoodie when you’re cold.”

“We’re saying a lot within the silence: We can’t and I know and But I want to and Me too. The effort of restraint burns in my chest — a physical ache from holding back.”

“Laughter feels like our flotation device — it won’t pull us out of the storm, but it might carry us through, if we can just hang on.”

“If we could capture feelings like we capture pictures, none of us would ever leave our rooms. It would be so tempting to inhabit the good moments over and over again. But I don’t want to be the kind of person who lives backwardly, who memorializes moments before she’s finished living in them.”

And a shameless photo to introduce you, officially, to my daughter Everett:

I spend a lot, lot, lot of time holding this little lady. How could I NOT? Sometimes when I’m really craving some reading time, I rock her and read my book aloud to her. She did, in fact, hear a good chunk of Open Road Summer. I hereby vow to turn this girl into a book-lover. Or try my darnedest. 😉


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Estelle: The Geography of You and Me by Jen E. Smith

The Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E SmithThe Geography of You and Me by Jennifer E. Smith ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 15, 2014
Publisher: Little Brown/Poppy
Pages: 352
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: New York City, travel, relationships with parents, long distance friendship/romance
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary: Owen and Lucy get stuck in an elevator together during a blackout in New York City. Once they are rescued, they explore the darkened (mostly) city and get to know each other. When they wake up the next morning, instead of picking up where they left off, Owen is off taking care of his dad and Lucy is off to (shockingly enough) meet her parents in London. Did their night of chatting, joking, and sharing mean anything more than just that? Owen and Lucy’s lives snowball into something new, maintaining the smallest amount of contact, yet still wondering if they will ever be in the same place again.

There are a few things I’ve come to expect from a Jennifer E. Smith novel: gorgeous prose, intimate friendships, family conflicts, and probably my favorite: lovely details to relish and collect along the way.

I’m so happy to say that The Geography of You and Me delivers in each and every way with the added bonus of a setting that starts off in my favorite place of all-time, New York City, and manages to move along to the West Coast and overseas in a way that made me want to book a plane ticket and explore the world immediately.

Do you remember the blackout in 2003? It was right before I left for college and one of my close friends and I were planning to go into the city after I got out of work. We wanted to see a show in an attempt to make as many memories as possible before we were apart for the first time in years. Well, it never happened. The lights went out in the store I was working in and I went home to no electricity — my plans for the evening totally changed.

My night was definitely not as memorable as Lucy and Owen’s. They spent the night wandering the city, getting to know each other, and looking up at the stars on the roof of their building. (It was their coolest refuge in the crazy heat of the summer.) What I loved most was that their time together wasn’t memorable because something physical happened, but because they shared something — it was a night where they both would have been alone if they hadn’t been caught in the elevator together. (Owen’s dad was stuck in Coney Island, and Lucy’s parents were on vacation in London.) It was one night of so many inconveniences that seemed better than so many others strung together. I didn’t blame each of them for placing so much importance on it, for wondering if it meant as much to the other as it did to them.

I would have been in the same boat.

One magical night doesn’t erase the grieving process that Owen and his dad are going through since his mother died a few months ago. Nor does Lucy’s confusion about feeling excluded from her parents’ lives (and their lavish trips) and wanting so much to see more of the world. Something that really stood out to me were the relationships between each of the characters and their parents. When Owen and his dad decide to leave New York and road trip to their next destination, the two get this unheard of time together to make life work without a mom and a wife. I felt almost jealous of these memories they were making together, even when it was difficult and they didn’t know if each destination was their last.

On the other hand, Lucy had a lot of independence as a teenager. But her parents don’t consider her thoughts when they move her overseas to Edinburgh and her growth as a character has a lot to do with being open with her parents. It’s a difficult thing to do and while she settles as best she can in a new place, she’s sort of at war with this independent life she has been conditioned to have but also trying to figure out how to share her life with her parents and be close to them too.

Through all of this, Owen and Lucy don’t forget each other. There are postcards and emails. Infrequent, but they happen! Most importantly, they don’t let their affection for each other and curiosity about what the blackout night meant for them stop them from moving forward. New locations, new jobs, new schools, and new boyfriends and girlfriends. Life keeps happening, even if you can’t stop thinking about a certain person. The way they miss each other is never angsty or dramatic either… it feels incredibly natural — all due to Smith’s gorgeous and thoughtful writing.

Other standout parts: the realism and awkwardness of the San Francisco trip, an effectively written section where Smith gives us one sentence per chapter (I loved what this did to the pacing), and the depth of character development folded into the story. At one point, I stayed up way past my bedtime because I was in such a trance over Owen and Lucy’s story and I needed to know how it was all going to end.

The Geography of You and Me packed in everything I love so much about the young adult contemporary genre — a fully fleshed out story with two characters who are learning so much about themselves through their relationships with their parents and those special people who make an everlasting imprint in our lives.

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P.S. I now know I need some kind of plan for future blackouts and keeping my cat safe. (Help!)

Estelle: Great by Sara Benincasa

Great by Sara BenincasaGreat by Sara Benincasa ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Publisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 272
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: classic retelling, Hamptons, high society, being the outsider, friendship
Format read: ARC from Publisher via Edelweiss. (Thanks!)

Summary: Naomi is off to spend the summer with her mother in the Hamptons. As always, she’s completely dreading it because she just doesn’t fit in there. Not with her mom’s rich “friends” or any of the other kids who hang out there. But this summer feels different because of her next door neighbor, Jacinta. She’s throwing elaborate parties, befriending Naomi (to get close to Delilah but still), and suddenly, Naomi is feeling like she is a part of things. But what is real and what is not?

There’s nothing like clicking with a narrator like I did with Naomi.

Her voice was so vividly judgy — I was immediately wrapped up in her story and the indignation she felt about her annual summer plans: the Hamptons to visit her mom where quality time meant hearing her mom complain about her clothes and push her to socialize with the well-connected kids her age. (Delilah and Teddy tolerate her, mostly. But she does not fit into their posh lifestyle at all.) It’s no shock that all Naomi wants to do is study and survive until she can get back to her best friend and dad in Chicago.

So it’s as much of a surprise to her, when Naomi is suddenly giving her mother a little bit of what she wants — getting invited to parties, wearing expensive dresses, going on dates with Jeff (whose dad owns a record label), and girlishly texting with Delilah. This switch in behavior is all thanks to Jacinta, the girl next door who has the means to throw the most excessive parties and maintains a highly-visited fashion blog that everyone wants to get featured on. Naomi is curious about her at first, but almost immediately takes a liking to her — even introducing her to Delilah (Jacinta’s #1 goal for the summer).

This is where things start to intensify because Jacinta and Delilah’s bond is — BOOM — super close, super quick and they are totally inseparable. Delilah is hardly seeing Teddy, Jacinta and Delilah aren’t including Naomi, and when Naomi does manage to see Jacinta, her every thought is wrapped up in Delilah.

Their behavior is bordering on obsessive, and it’s changing the dynamics of the group in a huge, dramatic way.

Most of all, it’s baffling what so many people in this story are willing to sacrifice because they don’t think the rules (of the world!) apply to them. It’s disappointing, it’s frustrating, and it’s tremendously effed up. Naomi is caught in the storm of all of this, and as she skirts the line between these “two” realities, her character is forced to make super tough decisions. Great is so well-paced, the tension is built so tightly, I literally could not put the book down — debating right and wrong, and who the true villain of this story was.

I definitely empathized with Jacinta and rooted for her in a way that I don’t remember doing with Gatsby. It’s tremendous how far she is willing to go for acceptance and for love. I didn’t blame Naomi for being so torn over her friendship with her and I loved the author’s choice of creating an internet maven out of Jacinta — oh, the great dangers and advantages of the world wide web. Without it, this story wouldn’t have existed.

Truth be told, it’s been a really long time since I read The Great Gatsby (I haven’t seen the latest Leo movie either) but Benincasa got my memory rolling and I was so excited (this is geeky) to pick out the parallels between the classic and Great. (Favorite detail, hands down, was how she named each character by using the first initial of the character’s name from the original.) Best of all, my familiarity with the original text in no way affected how hooked I was to this story.

Committing to a modern Gatsby retelling for young adults couldn’t have been an easy task and with the exception of a few too-modern references that I didn’t think would stand the test of time, I couldn’t have asked for a better crafted book to save me from a reading slump and get me excited about a new author.

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Estelle: Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira

Love Letters to the DeadLove Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: April 1, 2014
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Pages: 323
Format read: Young adult
Keywords: siblings, death, depression, celebrity deaths, friendship, romance
Format read: ARC from Publisher via NetGalley. (Thanks!)

Summary:  Six months after the death of her beloved older sister, May, Laurel is starting a new school and alternating between living with her father and her aunt. An English assignment to write a letter to a dead person has Laurel penning a note to Kurt Cobain, a favorite of her sister’s, and the letters morph into greater meaning. As she comes to terms with life without May, she shares new experiences, her innermost secrets, and thoughts with this group of deceased famous figures (as well as dissecting their own lives and demises).

Love Letters to the Dead reminded me of why I loved last year’s Wild Awake and classic Perks of Being a Wallflower so much: the ultimate highs and lows a character experiences while working through the tough stuff and the effort it takes to grow, and move forward. That’s all in Love Letters but despite some similarities, I assure you that this debut stands on its own with unique story structure, fluid writing, and a main character I wanted to shield from her demons and deliver to safety.

This is a difficult book to read, friends. And not for any reasons except it was dark and it was sad and some of it felt very lonely. I pictured Laurel sitting in her room or at school writing letters to Judy Garland, Amelia Earhart, or Heath Ledger and it just tore me up inside. Even as she maneuvered new friendships, a possible love connection (the absolutely amazing and mature Sky), and attempts to reconnect with her once jokester father and her runaway mother, everything in Laurel’s life felt so out of control. I wanted to be positive for her but gosh, it was so hard and I wondered when (and if) things would take a turn for the better.

The love Laurel and May had for each other was encompassed by this innocence I loved so much. Even when May started to detach herself from her family, she always came back to Laurel. It was a shame that May’s own distractions kept her from seeing what was going on with her little sister, and heartbreaking (but not unheard of) that Laurel couldn’t be open with her. There were a lot of “coulda shoulda wouldas” and at some point, playing rewind and reliving all of these moments could make someone totally unhinged. Especially if you are keeping it all to yourself. I was curious to see if Laurel would take these missed opportunities and make necessary changes for her future.

I have to take a minute to talk about the supporting characters. Hannah and Natalie, two girls who Laurel makes friends with at school, both have their own separate stories and  I liked watching the ebbs of flows of their relationships with one another. Can you truly be friends if you are unable to be honest and open up? What if you can’t accept who you really are? For awhile I wasn’t even sure if Hannah and Natalie would remain friends throughout the book, and I felt a lot of Laurel’s own anxieties about fitting in and finding people who know you. (Especially when people you love have the tendency to leave.)

I also have to give it up for Sky; he’s older and a bit mysterious but I really thought he did good by Laurel even when she might not have seen it that way. He wanted to be her shoulder, he wanted to help her, but how do you help someone who doesn’t want to help herself? Sky felt like an anchor from the moment he and Laurel connected but she had to be her own life preserver for them to work as friends or as more than that. Everything about Sky felt true to Love Letters‘ story.

When I’m reading (and I’m not sure I’m alone), I tend to think about the longevity of a book’s time in my life. Will I read it again? Do I want to own a copy? Is it the kind of book I want to pass on to others? I had my doubts with this one because it was just so very sad. Why would I want to relive it, right? Well, I was so impressed with the beauty of Dellaira’s writing and I found myself berating myself for not taking extensive notes from the very beginning. From the conclusions Laurel would draw about the celebrities she confided in, the music and movies she mentioned, and even what she chose to share with each of these people… there is so much to breakdown and discover. Love Letters is a book that not only deserves your uninterrupted attention, but a spot of honor on your bookshelf.

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