book review and cover for All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven | Review + Giveaway

book review and cover for All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven [twitter | website]
Publication Date: January 6, 2015
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 384
Target Audience: Mature Young Adult
Keywords: depression, opposites attract, senior year, death of a sibling
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (A BIG thank you!)

Summary: After meeting on the top of the school’s bell tower, both contemplating the horror of jumping off, Finch bursts into every aspect of Violet’s life and they’re paired up (at his insistence) for a class project that requires them to spend even more time together.

• • •

Have you ever read a book that was SO GOOD you had to stop reading it so you wouldn’t finish it? I admit that this hasn’t happened many times to me. Usually I get heart palpitations and I dread finishing, but I never completely stop reading. Well, that’s what happened with All the Bright Places. I got to 92% and turned off my kindle, turned out the light, and snuggled in bed. Of course my mind wouldn’t quit racing and I couldn’t stop thinking about Finch and Violet. But at least I had that 8% to finish the next day.

The Meeting Place: On top of the school’s bell tower, both Violet and Finch are contemplating what it would be like to jump. Him: because he fluctuates between being “awake” and “sleeping” and because he’s fascinated with facts about how people have died. Her: because she feels she’s responsible for her sister’s death and can’t grasp why she was allowed to live.

The Story: Finch and Violet are two extremely unlikely characters who after meeting atop the bell tower, are paired together for a class in which they have to discover elements of Indiana over the course of the semester as their major project. This project and Violet’s company — the way she fascinates him and he wants to know more of her story — keeps Finch awake and helps him not to slip into the depths of his depression. He wants to keep Violet safe and alive and make her see she’s going to be okay. He’s known as a freak; she’s part of the popular crowd. He cares what no one thinks and tends to masquerade as different personas whenever he so chooses. Violet envies his ease and intelligence, but she’s also wary of him.

The Charm: Wit. Humor. Laughing out loud at the easy banter between Violet and Finch. Beautiful, gripping writing that really connected me to both characters (especially considering it’s old in alternating POVs). Finch and Violet were ALIVE and unique. The scenery and locations they visited were so “normal” and unspectacular until they arrived and breathed life into them. Meeting Violet and Finch is like taking a deep breath of the most intoxicating scent you’ve ever smelled — it fills you up and makes your lungs burn because you never want to exhale and lose the deliciousness.

The Clincher: There’s this feeling that something’s going to happen as you can feel that they’re both trying to climb out of the long, lonely slumbers they were in before meeting. My emotions were on such a roller coaster as I learned more and more about their stories and who they were. There’s such joy in two polar opposite characters meeting (however tragically that might have been) and seeing their relationship progress to such a beautiful place.

I’ve already marked All the Bright Places as a favorite for 2015. I finished the last pages and immediately pre-ordered a finished copy to be mailed to Estelle. I never, ever spend a lot of time re-reading books, but this book is so strong and remarkable I’ll need to. (I highlighted a bazillion passages and think each time I read it, a million more will stand out.) I guarantee Jennifer Niven will be racking up multiple awards for her incredible work. (She deserves every one of them.)

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• • •

HAPPY NEW YEAR GIVEAWAY!

I loved All the Bright Places so incredibly much that I want to start 2015 off by sharing a copy of it with someone!
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book review for How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

Magan: How to Save a Life by Sara Zarr

book review for How to Save a Life by Sara ZarrHow to Save a Life by Sara Zarr
Publication Date: October 18, 2011
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 341
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: death, loss of a parent, pregnancy, adoption, abuse, new beginnings
Format read: ARC from ALA.

Summary: After her father’s passing, Jill’s mom decides to adopt a baby and allows the pregnant teenage girl, Mandy, to move in with them during the last few weeks of her pregnancy.

 

Jill’s dad is her best friend – they’re two of a kind, they understand each other. He’s the parent she’s closer to. That is, until he passes away. Jill and her mom, Robin, have never been incredibly close. After his passing, they find it even more difficult to communicate and grieve together. One of my favorite quotes (of the many I wrote down) from How to Save a Life best summarizes their relationship:

“Mom and I, different as we are, are twin planets orbiting the same
universe of grief but never quite making contact.” 
(page 41)

Robin chooses to act on something she and her late husband had always considered – adopting a baby. Jill doesn’t understand. She assumes her mom is trying to replace the loss of one person with the life of another. She’s angry and unsupportive – feeling like her mom is distancing herself from raising her since she’ll soon be off to college. She’s not sure her mom has thought through everything and questions how she chooses to go about adopting the baby.

Mandy, the 18-year-old pregnant girl, arrives on a train to Denver. Robin opens their home to Mandy during the last few weeks of her pregnancy. Things are quite amiss with raging emotions, unspoken grief, and hidden lies Mandy refuses to bring to light. Jill is skeptical of Mandy and takes every opportunity to tell her mom that she doesn’t believe her dad would agree with her decisions.

Each chapter alternates back and forth between Jill and Mandy’s perspectives. We see how cynical and hard Jill has become since her father’s death. We get a sense that she’s searching and cannot figure out how to be the happy, easy-going girl she once was. She’s pushed away all her friends and her boyfriend. Mandy is running from demons – a mom who jumps from boyfriend to boyfriend hoping to find a money-bag to take care of her. Mandy comes across much younger than she is, so innocent, but in fact, her history is much darker than anyone could predict.

This being my first Zarr book, I was completely mesmerized by her writing. I’m not one who usually writes down tons of quotes or re-reads sentences to reflect on the magic author’s create with words. I did with this book. I treaded slowly and cautiously because every word was so carefully weighed. I had a very real sense of Robin’s home, Jill’s place of work (a bookstore!), and the coffee shop Jill visited to meet up with her new friend Ravi. But, I also clearly saw distinguishable characters that were extremely authentic and original.

I admire how Zarr balanced grief with the prospect of hope. Each character had to strip away heavy burdens and went through an internal metamorphosis. While her subject matter was deep, Zarr didn’t weigh me down with agonizing details that took away from her main goal — to show us that we need people to lean on during the hard times in our lives, no matter what the trials or struggles may be.

How to Save a Life is a notable story about how our lives can be shaken up and we have to slowly put the pieces back together — even if those pieces don’t fit back together exactly how they used to.

Goodreads | Amazon

Magan: One Moment by Kristina McBride

One Moment by Kristina McBride 
Publication Date
: June 26, 2012
Publisher: EgmontUSA
Pages: 272
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: Death, lies and secrecy, friendship, loss of first love
Format read: eBook received from NetGalley

Summary: When Maggie’s friend Adam finds her hiding beneath the cover of the forest, she has no memory of what happend atop the rock she and her boyfriend Joey were supposed to jump off of together. She’s faced with Joey’s death when Adam escorts her down. As her memory begins to piece together, she learns how many secrets Joey had been keeping from her.

Some of the world’s greatest stories are based on tragedy. Would Romeo and Juliet have been so epic if the end hadn’t been so tragic? I’m drawn to stories that have big plots with scary events because it takes a lot of ingenuity to make it work flawlessly. (And I also secretly like to see if I can figure out all the details before the author gives us all the clues.)

In One Moment, McBride introduces us to a close-knit group of six friends – Pete, Shannon, Tanna, Adam, Maggie, and Joey – who are celebrating the beginning of summer at their favorite secluded hang out. Our main protagonist is Maggie who has been dating Joey for nearly two years. Maggie is extremely afraid of heights and since they found these huge four-story high rocks by the water, she’s never jumped off of them. She always chickens out. With a little liquid courage and a dare from Shannon she can’t seem to back down from, Maggie decides to jump off the rock with Joey. They climb, hand-in-hand, to the top, but the next thing Maggie knows, she’s being rescued by Adam from a spot she hid in the forest.

When Adam ushers her back down she finds out that Joey is dead.
She has no recollection of what happened once she and Joey got to the top of the rock.

How suspicious does this sound? I immediately assumed Maggie was hiding something and maybe she wasn’t suffering from memory loss like she proclaimed. McBride also gave away a subtle hint in the beginning of the story that led me to make bigger assumptions about what really happened to Joey. The secrecy, mystery, and desire to find out the truth propelled me forward. These six friends were thick as thieves before Joey’s death, but afterward, they’re completely out of sorts. Adam completely distances himself from the group because he’s upset over something (but won’t share the details with them). There was also a phone call between Joey and Adam, but Shannon doesn’t want to get into the details.

As Maggie’s memory slowly comes back to her, so do all the unwanted truths about Joey.

Joey is the only boy Maggie has ever loved. She never got to tell him that. Maggie’s heart becomes so conflicted as she learns that the boy she loved was not the person he was. He was living a double life. How wretched to learn that someone wasn’t who they thought they were and you no longer have the opportunity to talk it over. Maggie doesn’t know whether she should mourn the loss of her boyfriend or be angry at him for all the things he kept from her.

One Moment was incredibly fast-paced and engaging. It’s the story of friendship and a life-altering event. It will make you question how well you know the people closest to you. Your heart will break into tiny pieces (or maybe you’ll be madder than hell) when everything comes together. McBride does a wonderful job exploring how one fleeting moment changes everything and how things piece back together when you’re not even sure where to begin.

Goodreads | Buy on Amazon

review and book cover for waiting by carol lynch williams

Magan: Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams

review and book cover for waiting by carol lynch williamsWaiting by Carol Lynch Williams
Release Date: May 1, 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books
Target Audience: Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format read: ARC received from ALA (Thank you!)

Summary: London’s best friend is her brother Zach; it has always been the two of them as their family has moved across the world as missionaries. When Zach dies, London’s faith is questioned and she finds herself very alone.

Carol Lynch Williams immediately caught my attention in Waiting, the story of London trying to heal after the loss of her brother, Zach. Written in verse, the story is immediately entrancing – Lynch submerges her readers into the deep emotional, aching pit of London’s life. The pacing is fast and Lynch’s words are deliberate, meticulous… calculated. I breezed through this sorrowful story of loneliness and loss.

London has grown up with missionary parents – living in the farthest reaches of the world. They had moved back to the United States, where Zach and London were enrolled in public school. After Zach dies, her father immerses himself further into the church, but leads a mostly silent life at home. London’s mom hasn’t so much as glanced in her direction, much less spoken a single word to her. It was understandable that London would examine her faith and make problematic decisions. As a reader we don’t know what happened to Zach. There is secrecy surrounding his death and London isn’t eager to voice the details.

As you can probably imagine, events in London’s life seemed to be defined by a series of “befores” and “afters.” She struggled with how to move on. Before Zach died, London had an awesome boyfriend, Taylor, who also happened to be Zach’s best friend. After, it takes all of her might to be around Taylor because so many of her memories with him are tied to her deceased brother.

Enter Jesse.

Jesse is the new boy at school. He doesn’t have any idea what happened to London and her family. He doesn’t look at her with the same sad, pathetic look everyone else throws her way. Thus begins the downward spiral as London begins to “date” two boys. She draws closer to Taylor again because he understands and can help her remember. BUT, she enjoys the thrill and sneakiness of being with Jesse. Her struggle to choose one boy was really, really difficult for me to read about. I anticipated everything falling [further] to pieces at the climax of the story. I’m not going to let you know what happened and who (or if anyone at all) she chooses.

The most bewildering part of this story was absolutely London’s relationship with her family. She was acting out, begging for attention from her parents who were so blinded by their grief. Bit by bit, the truth behind Zach’s death is revealed, making the pain and anger the reader experiences along with Taylor even more pronounced. As someone who could connect with the faith her family professed, I did not understand her parent’s actions. I could never imagine abandoning my child in such a way. Her mother was absolutely terrible: I hated her.

For a few reasons (written in verse, deeply emotional story, and cheating aspects) I can see this story being a turn-off to some readers. However, if you enjoy books that make you feel and think (and maybe cry), then you should most definitely read this book. My recommendation for fans of The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson is that you pick this up soon; I read Nelson’s book last year and while wonderful and similar in plot, felt emotionally attached to Waiting by Carol Lynch Williams in a whole new way.

Goodreads | Amazon

Estelle: You Have Seven Messages by Stewart Lewis

You Have Seven Messages by Stewart Lewis (website | twitter)
Publication Date: 9/13/2011
Publisher: Random House Children’s Books
Pages: 304 Pages
Target Audience: Young adult
Keywords: Death of a parent, mystery, art, family, first love
Format read: Hardcover from library.

Summary: A year after her mother’s death, Luna visits her old studio and finds her old cell phone, fully charged with 7 messages on it. After listening to the first, she realizes there is a lot to her mother and her mother’s death than she initially thought and sets off on a journey to piece together her old life and finally be able to move forward.

Sometimes I hear a song and love it so much that I wish I could lay on my dining room floor for an entire day listening to it, letting it just wash over me. (In this fantasy, there’s sunshine coming through a window. Lots of it.) This is how I can best describe my experience of reading You Have Seven Messages. I wanted to soak in its beautiful and lyrical writing for as long as I could, never breaking my connection with these characters or this state of grief and discovery that was so eloquently described.

My heart was aching for all the good reasons and all the bad ones. Maybe I’m just a person who enjoys the melancholic situations. Probably. Luna, the 14-year old going on 30 main character, is serious, sarcastic, creative, and honest in a way that I wish more people would be. In a way that I strive to be. In fact, I think I’m a lot like Luna which is why I connected to her so much. I enjoyed her sassy humor, her love for the boy next door, and how much she loved her mother.

She’s also incredibly brave. She doesn’t hesitate much when she finds her mom’s old cell phone, and starts exploring this secret life — knowing full well her uncoverings could change her perception of this woman she loved so deeply. I also loved how protective she is of her younger brother, Tile, before and after she starts her sleuthing. (Tile is a highlight throughout the book, especially when he speaks in “script talk” – their dad is a well-known film director.) Here’s one beautiful quote that sums it all up: “He’s still a small flower and I feel like I’m becoming a strong tree. There will be storms, and he will need shelter.” Like his sister, Tile has matured since his mother’s death but I get the impression he was always a kid who acted a bit older. I really couldn’t get enough of him.

While Luna’s slight obsession with her neighbor, a talented cello player and older boy, Oliver is more of a supporting plotline. I loved to see Luna stumble and deal with her feelings for him and sort of grasp on to the same bravery she portrays when dealing with this mystery surrounding her mother. Oliver is also unlike many of the other YA boys I’ve read about… he has a certain confidence and maturity but he’s also held back by the mistakes and beliefs of his parents. Luna and Oliver’s relationship is so organic and sweet and special. They seem to have this silent support for one another, and an innocent intensity that I enjoyed so much.

There’s something about taking an intriguing idea and weaving it into this beautiful masterpiece. Lewis writes with such a precise and gorgeous rhythm. I was constantly jotting down lines or closing the book because I was overwhelmed by the art. The art and the skill of writing so beautifully and with such ease. It was inspiring and certainly gave me a tangible example of what I would love to aspire to someday.

You Have Seven Messages is about realizations in love and relationships and family, and also the pursuit of perfection, the idealism of a perfect relationship or family. And coming to terms with that idealism. It is about moving forward and dealing with the messy stuff. Forgiveness. The discoveries made are powerful, painful, and raw and I can just about guarantee you will have the hardest time putting this book down for even a few seconds. It is that engrossing.

Goodreads | Buy on Amazon

book cover for second chance summer by morgan matson

Magan: Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson

book cover for second chance summer by morgan matsonSecond Chance Summber by Morgan Matson [website | twitter]
Publication Date: May 8, 2012
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Pages: 480
Keywords: Family, Cancer, Growing Up, Friendship, Love
Target Audience: Young Adult
Format Read: Paperback from TLA (Thank you!)

Summary: Taylor’s father is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given approximately three months to live. Her family (Mom, Dad, sister Gelsey, and brother Warren) decides to abandon their previously planned summer activities to spend this last one together at their lake house. They haven’t been there in five years, and the last time they were there, Taylor massively screwed up things with her best lake house friend, Lucy, and her first boyfriend, Henry. It’s a summer of saying good-bye to her father and confronting her past. It’s time for Taylor to stop running away from all of the things she’s afraid of.

Second Chance Summer by Morgan Matson has landed a spot in my top ten favorite books of all time.

This story is layered and complex, but so rich with detail and overflowing with emotion. It’s about the power of apologies,  confronting life head on, falling in love, losing a parent to cancer, and growing up. From the very beginning, I was drawn into Taylor’s world and emotionally invested in her family’s story.

Matson did an incredible job of crafting the characters and building relationships. Taylor always seemed to suffer a bit from “middle child syndrome” and didn’t feel like she had any distinguishing traits or talents like her siblings (Warren was a brainiac and Gelsey a talented ballerina). It was Taylor’s bond with her father that really tugged on my heart strings because even though she didn’t feel special by comparison, he showed her he loved her through his words and his actions. They had secret breakfasts together where they played fun trivia games to get to know one another. He always seemed to know exactly what she needed and would offer advice in the most nonchalant ways. Taylor’s character was mature and it was really admirable to see that she understood her time with her dad was precious. Their relationship made me think about my [future] children and how I want to have that kind of profound relationship with them and be that kind of parent.

Taylor would frequently run from situations she didn’t want to deal with in the past; this was the summer of her growing up and defying her fears – not just with her father, but with the two people she left behind five summers ago. Being back in (incredibly small) Lake Phoenix, she is forced to see her ex-best friend, Lucy, and ex-first boyfriend, Henry. As readers, we don’t immediately know what happened five years before to separate these three. Via a few flashback chapters that catch us up to present day, we get the full story.** Henry was full of a lot of hurt that had to be mended between he and Taylor. He was intriguing and quiet — one of those strong, silent types that will make girls’ hearts everywhere skip a beat. Taylor and Henry were wary of each other and their inevitable run-ins were so entertaining and awkward. Lucy seemed much more difficult to crack. Though they had summer jobs together, Lucy would barely glance in Taylor’s direction. Matson realistically brought these relationships to life; the timing and progression (of the entire story, actually) flowed so effortlessly.

The word I could not get out of my head when I sorrowfully closed Second Chance Summer was linger. This will be a story that will stay with me; it has implanted itself in my heart. Maybe that sounds cheesy to you, but I cried (sobbed, to be precise) as Matson weaved this story together, allowing me to fully grasp the dynamics of the family and friendships. As I became more and more absorbed in the story, my eyesight became blurrier as the cancer progressed. This was definitely a difficult and sad book to read, forcing me to constantly be on the verge of tears until I was so emotionally overwhelmed about 100 pages from the end and I could no longer hold them back. I cried big, fat, ugly tears the entire rest of the way through.

Second Chance Summer is a book I want to shout about from the rooftops. It’s beautiful, gripping, and has no doubt, set a much higher standard for everything I am to read after it.

Goodreads | Amazon

**Just a little friendly comparison:

While I was reading Second Chance Summer, I found myself making many comparisons to The Story of Us by Deb Caletti. The stories are similar in that Taylor and Cricket both made decisions in their past that affected other people; Matson and Caletti chose to slowly unravel what they did throughout the course of the book instead of letting us know immediately. I was bothered by how long it took to get to the point in The Story of Us, but didn’t feel that way at all in Second Chance Summer. For me, the difference came down to how well Matson’s characters were developed. I felt like I knew Taylor and could understand the decisions she was making. They were logical and I identified with her very much. The secondary plot line of Taylor’s dad dying of cancer was just as intriguing as finding out what happened with her ex-friends. I never felt I could identify with Cricket in The Story of Us in the same way because I didn’t feel her character was developed as well; the decisions she was making in real life conflicted heavily with the things she wrote to her ex-boyfriend in her letters. The secondary plot of her family gathering together for her mother’s wedding celebration was also just so, so overwhelming. I wanted to know what Janssen and Cricket’s story was… not learn about all the family dynamics.