Book Cover for The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Magan: The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr

Book Cover for The Lucy Variations by Sara ZarrThe Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr (website | twitter)
Publication Date: May 7, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 320
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: teen proteges, young pianists, parental pressure, older crushes
Format read: ARC provided by Publisher. (Thanks!)

Summary: After completely abandoning piano and not playing for eight months, Lucy begins pondering if she wants to play again and how her family would accept her decision (especially since she doesn’t want to be pushed into the professional circuit again.) It doesn’t hurt that her little brother’s new piano teacher is encouraging her to play.

Eight months ago, Lucy walked away from her future career as a concert pianist.

She hasn’t touched a piano since the day she walked off the stage in Prague. Her decision has caused tons of family strife; there’s so much tension between she and her grandfather now and all the focus has been placed on her 10-year-old brother, Gus, and his future career. Her parents refuse to acknowledge too much pressure was put on Lucy and her successes. Lucy fears that Gus will soon hate playing, too, because of all the rigorous training and must-win attitude he must face adapt.

After the sudden death of Gus’ old piano teacher, young, unconventional Will replaces her. In addition to making waves by changing Gus’s training schedule, Will also begins to question Lucy about her leave from playing. Does she still want to play? Does she ever play for fun?

Eventually Lucy begins to form answers to those questions. She’s not sure how to deal with the answers (or how her family would respond to what she wants to do).

Long gone are the days of Lucy’s private tutors and jet setting around the world to perform; she’s back to a “normal” schedule at San Francisco’s second best private school. Her best friends, Carson and Reyna, listen to their fair share of Lucy’s dramatic family stories, while encouraging her to stay out of trouble. You see, Lucy was forced to mature so quickly that she tends to gravitate toward crushing on older men. (Reyna’s not so much a fan of this because her parents are in the middle of a gruesome divorce thanks to her dad’s scandalous affairs with pretty, younger women.)

A lot can happen when you form an unorthodox relationship with your little brother’s piano teacher.

As you guys probably are aware by now, Sara Zarr is one of my favorite authors in the whole wide world. The Lucy Variations is another strong representation of her amazing talent. There were rich family dynamics — a grandfather who is extremely wealthy but continues to live in the family mansion with Lucy’s family, parents that orbit around their children’s careers and fear speaking against Grandpa’s demands, an adorable, loveable younger brother that you will want to pull into a big bear hug, and Martin, their amazing chef/butler that has seen Lucy grow up and always offers insightful advice.

And then there’s what I felt was most interesting, especially as I think about what kind of parent I want to be: the immense pressure this family put on their children to excel and have the rest of their lives perfectly planned out. I know a lot of parents who push their kids into just about every sport or have them practicing with coaches one-on-one so their kids can be The Best. Realistically, the chance to have an athletic professional career (or a musical one) is microscopic. Lucy’s childhood was completely stripped away from her.

This led to her making some questionable decisions and crushing on some guys that really left me feeling a bit squirmy at times. (Though, yes, I definitely remember thinking about what would happen if I ever met Justin Timberlake and how our age difference wouldn’t matter. Cause, um, you know — that would be the only questionable difference between us, right?) Lucy’s very real but very flawed — she loves her younger brother and wants to protect him, but does some pretty selfish things that are understandable though she has no foresight to see how they’ll (negatively) impact the future.

While How to Save a Life still clings to the gold as my favorite Sara Zarr book, The Lucy Variations comes in a very close second place. Sara’s writing is effortless; I could swim in her words forever and ever. And hopefully you guys will want to, too, if I continue singing her praises.

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Book Cover for Golden by Jessi Kirby

Magan: Golden by Jessi Kirby

Book Cover for Golden by Jessi KirbyGolden by Jessi Kirby {website | twitter}
Publication Date: May 14, 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Pages: 288
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: murder mystery, college decisions, road trip, overbearing mother
Format read: ARC received from Simon & Schuster (Thank you!)

Summary: As Parker is about to embark upon her high school graduation, she comes across the journal of a girl who died ten years prior. She steals the journal and begins to read it. Little does she know the journal will lead her to try to solve the mystery of Julianna’s death and re-evaluate where her life is taking her.

You know that feeling when you love an author and you’re super excited for his/her next release… Then you’re completely blown away because this book … THIS BOOK trumps all the others? And you finish it with a happy, goofy smile on your face, but your heart is heavy because you’re sad it’s over?

That’s how I felt after reading Jessi Kirby’s upcoming release, Golden.

As a teacher’s assistant for Mr. Kinney at her high school, Parker is in charge of mailing senior composition books to former students for their ten-year graduation anniversary; these books were their final project in Mr. Kinney’s class, meant to make them reflect on their lives and what they hoped to accomplish. As she’s monotonously looking up addresses, she freezes when she comes across a particular journal. Julianna is a girl who died ten years ago in a freak snowstorm with her boyfriend, Shane. There’s a lot of mystery about what really happened to Julianna and Shane because their bodies were never recovered, but the town continues to honor them and their parents provide a scholarship each year in their memory. Curiosity overtakes Parker, and though she knows she had no business doing so, she takes Julianna’s journal and begins to read it. She becomes absorbed in their story and seeks answers to the unsolved mystery.

She keeps this secret to herself because she’s guilt-ridden over what she’s done. Parker is a girl who never, ever does anything wrong. She’s a good student with a very clear path in life. Her mother is very hard on her and though Parker will graduate soon, she’s treated like an immature teenager. She’s not a crazy party girl and her best friend, Kat, is constantly encouraging her to do something more adventurous. Never would Parker have guessed where swiping Julianna’s journal would lead her.

Parker keeps replaying Mr. Kinney’s question (originally a quote by Mary Oliver) posed to Julianna in her first entry, “So tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” She reflects on this as she’s writing the speech for the scholarship she’ll need to attend Stanford. Is she doing what she really wants? Just when she’s on the brink of making a life-changing decision (college, what she’ll major in), there’s nervousness and fear about what she’s supposed to do and who she’s supposed to be. She wants to look back at her decisions and know she made the right ones. Many people, of all ages, can relate to Kirby’s message:

Are we just letting life pass us by?
What will our legacy be?

Mary Oliver’s quote is one I see every morning when I walk out of my bedroom. I mull over this question so frequently. In the grand scheme of my life, what do I want to do? Who do I want to be? Here’s the print by Katie Daisy that I have hanging:

mary oliver wild and precious life quote

Because everything flowed so well from the very beginning, Jessi Kirby’s Golden immediately pulled me in and grabbed my attention. I connected to Parker’s goal-oriented, driven character who wasn’t too uptight or hard to relate to. Kat was the kind of lifelong best friend I want for myself — someone who pushes me not to settle for monotony and refuses to let me fall prey to someone else’s demands. Trevor was the best kind of guy with tons of mystery, loads of snark and snappy comebacks, and a heart of gold. The mystery kept me buzzing through the pages, and the final message still rings true to me at 27 years of age. Oh, and there was just enough balance with family background and secondary characters to make me feel like I understood Parker’s life in her small California town.

This might sound strange coming from a little ol’ blogger, but after I finished Golden I felt so proud of Jessi Kirby. There was noticeable strength and growth in her writing. I’ve always, always been a fan of hers, but this book made me want to give her a big hug and celebrate what I feel is a lovely breakthrough in her talent. If I wasn’t already crazy excited for more of Jessi’s work in the future, now I’m just downright overjoyed to read whatever she comes up with next.

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Rather Be Reading Review of Return to Me by Justina Chen

Magan: Return to Me by Justina Chen

Rather Be Reading Review of Return to Me by Justina ChenReturn to Me by Justina Chen
Publication Date
: January 15, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 352
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: Divorce, College, Sixth Sense, Long-Distance Relationships
Format read: ARC received at ALA

Summary: Rebecca is on the brink of beginning her architectural education at Columbia; her parents have packed up their belongings to move from Seattle to New Jersey (yay?). Days after their relocation, Reb’s father announces that he’s been seeing another woman and abandons his family.

For those of you that loved North of Beautiful by Justina Chen, I am so hesitant to write this review. I, too, loved that book and had extremely high expectations of Return to Me. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the same deep emotional connection with the characters, nor did I feel as rooted in the story.

My expectations for Return to Me were much different than the story that unfolded in the pages. I assumed Reb would be struggling to put her life back together while maintaining a long distance relationship and college. Much of the story is internal as Reb tries to answer the “What will I do with my life now?” question. Her father’s deception causes her to second guess every aspect of her life, which was often frustrating because she realizes how many of her decisions were made to make him happy. She begins distrusting Jackson, her boyfriend, as if her father’s affair has flipped a switch in her. She plays a game of cat and mouse with him as she tries to sort through all of her emotions. Reb’s uneasiness made me dislike her character and hate how she was toying with someone else’s life, much like her father had been manipulating hers.

One of my biggest dilemmas with Return to Me was the quick and abrupt decision-making on behalf of Reb, the main character. One moment she’s completely invested in making her relationship work long distance with Jackson, and the next page, she’s withdrawn and has a completely different outlook. Her actions weren’t always easy to understand, weren’t explained well, and were extremely contradictory. I do understand that a girl reeling from her father’s abandonment would be imbalanced and uncertain, but minimizing the amount of back-and-forth action would have made Reb a more relatable character.

There is also a psychic/intuition/sixth sense element that really detached me from the story. Reb had disturbing visions when she thought about her family’s move, as if she knew something terrible was going to happen. Reb and the women in her family have a way of getting glimpses of the future; her negative feelings were a warning for her father’s unfaithfulness. Oftentimes, Reb would have a vision or a back story would be told that had no context to support the story; this element seemed to justify information that wasn’t necessary and, as a reader, I only felt more confused.

Overall, the story could have been more focused. If the sixth sense aspect of the story had been disregarded, the story would have flowed better and negated some of the unnecessary confusion and complexity. The timing and pacing could have benefitted from more fine tuning and made the story more believable. Though I desperately wanted to love another of Chen’s book, Return to Me sadly wasn’t a hit for me and left me feeling like I should not finished it and, instead, moved on to something I would have enjoyed more.

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book cover for Just One Day by Gayle Forman

Magan: Just One Day by Gayle Forman

book cover for Just One Day by Gayle FormanJust One Day (Just One Day #1) by Gayle Forman
Publication Date: January 8, 2013
Publisher: Dutton Juvenile
Pages: 368
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: Paris, College, Life Experiences, Falling in Love
Format read: ARC borrowed from Anna at Anna Reads (Thanks, lady!)

Summary: Allyson is on “the trip of a lifetime” in Europe with her best friend, Melanie, after their high school graduation; after following all the rules throughout the trip, Allyson decides to be spontaneous and go to Paris for one day with Willem, an actor she meets in a Shakespeare play.

Tomorrow is a day all book readers need to rejoice, rush to the closest bookstore, purchase a copy of Just One Day, and read it in its entirety. I am not kidding, not in the least. This book is probably one of my very favorite books I’ve read … ever.

Forman took me by complete surprise with her previous books, If I Stay and Where She Went. There are moments I still reflect on scenes from those books and find myself daydreaming about the characters. It’s always a bit scary to read something new when an author leaves that kind of impression. Regardless, Jamie and Anna talked up Just One Day and graciously sent it my way.

Within the first few pages, the confused and very structured main character, Allyson, had struck a chord with me. Her life was controlled and micromanaged by overbearing parents who planned every second of her life. It’s not until the end of her tour in Europe that she realizes how little she’s explored because she was too afraid to do something not on the itinerary (meanwhile, her best friend, Melanie, has made new friends and semi-reinvented herself).

When the chance to go to Paris for a day with Willem (a boy she meets through a local production of a Shakespeare play) arises, she pushes her hesitations aside and chooses to be adventurous. Willem is funny, intelligent, good-looking, and has a wandering spirit that’s up for the challenge of showing Allyson the city. Allyson morphs into an alter-ego, Lulu, who is the bold and daring version of herself. The girl that’s brave and doesn’t need to have every moment pre-planned.

Forman’s writing is beautiful and perfect; her prose is spot on. Her descriptions are vivid — painting clear pictures of the places they went, the people they encountered, the sights they saw. Though I may have expected a “touristy” and overly romantic trek through Paris, what I received was so much more than that. Their stops felt very realistic and not overly idealized. I loved that I didn’t receive the postcard description of the city, but experienced two people discovering themselves in a foreign city in a very natural way. Nothing feels forced, cliched, or contrived.

Maybe you’re like me and you assumed that Just One Day would be mostly an epic love story. Forman’s themes are so strong, making me believe that her words could reach a vast audience.

+ JOD is about a pressured, sheltered girl with high demands being forced on her by her parents (Go to med school. Make something of yourself. Collect clocks. Wear these clothes.) and how she struggles to break free of the mold they’ve so tightly cast around her.

+ It’s about the separation and distance we face when we part from our childhood friends to chase new dreams. (How do you remain friends when it seems life is pulling you in two opposite directions?)

+ There’s the sense of change and wanting to chase after something new and different and acting on it, even though (or maybe especially because) everyone expects you to stay the same.

+ It’s about making friends as an adult and how different that can be than the judgmental ways of high school… and how our preconceived notions of someone can be so, so wrong.

There are no words to describe my love/adoration/infatuation for Just One Day. One day can change the course of your life. I wish I could purchase copies for every person on the planet because it has affected me that immensely.

I highly encourage you, friends, to go out tomorrow and purchase a copy of this book. Allow yourself to fall in love with Paris, to seek answers to all the questions surrounding Willem, and to grow and change with Allyson.

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