book review of Kissing in America by Margo Rabb

Kissing in America by Margo Rabb • Magan Reviews

book review of Kissing in America by Margo RabbKISSING IN AMERICA by Margo Rabb [web | tweet]
Published by Harper Teen on May 26, 2015
Pages: 400
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: first love, parental loss, airplane crash, detached mothers

Summary: Not many things have gone right for Eva, but when she meets Will and they connect over personal losses they’ve both suffered through, she feels like she’s finally piecing herself back together again. Until Will has to move across the country and she’s not sure how or when she’ll ever see him again.

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Kissing in America was my in-flight book of choice a few weeks ago. Usually I do a little bit of reading about the book before I jump right in, but I’d momentarily forgotten to download my review books to my kindle so I quickly did that moments before I was told to temporarily turn off my devices. I hadn’t even read the summary when I began, and I’m pretty sure that made reading this book even more special – I had no expectations.

Eva is a pretty typical teenager — she struggles with fitting in, is angered by how detached her mom can be one moment and how suffocating she feels the next, and has one solid best friend, Annie. But there’s something that sets Eva apart, too. Her father died two years ago in an airplane crash. The piqued curiosity she received when telling people about his death infuriated her so much she began to tell people he died peacefully in his sleep from a heart attack. (Meanwhile her mother never, ever mentions him and discarded any trace of him weeks after he died.)

When she begins tutoring Will by proofing his college essays and English papers, they connect over their personal tragedies. His younger brother died as an infant and his mother has never recovered from the loss. As Eva’s adoration for Will grows, she can’t lie to him anymore about her dad’s death. She spills the truth to him and this bonds them even more; she loves that she can be honest about all of these pieces of her no one except Annie knows: how she secretly reads messages in a forum for the surviving family members of the airplane crash or how she hoarded some of her dad’s belongings before her mother could toss them out. Their love for reading and poetry, their losses, and their easy banter bind Will and Eva together over the course of the school year.

Just when things have hit their stride, Will’s forced to move to California. How will these two ever reunite (especially considering she could never fly there)? Kissing in America is a strong tale about first love, healing, heartbreak, parental struggles, not always seeing eye-to-eye, and best friendship stress when you suck at life and let someone down. Eva and Annie find a way to road trip to CA by entering in a game show competition to find the Smartest Girl in America. Annie is a brilliant girl destined for MIT, but she’s overwhelmed by the cost of it and knows her parents couldn’t afford it. This could be her ticket to her dreams.

With much hesitation and a few embarrassing rules in place, Annie and Eva are allowed to road trip from New York to Los Angeles. This was by far my favorite aspect of the book. They meet a crazy bus thief, a few Texas cowboys (who were severely over-exaggerated, but still so fun), and get some solid advice from Eva’s mom’s best friend Lulu. There were moments of such extreme realness in Kissing in America that made me feel like an eavesdropper/stalker along for the bus trip.

The remainder of Kissing in America needs to be experienced by you and I should stop babbling on. (But believe me I could chat forever about this one.) It made me giggle, brought tears to my eyes, made me think about the type of mother I hope to be, and even frightened me a little bit as the details of her father’s plane crash were revealed. It’s one of those books that gives you a whole lot of story in the best and simplest of ways, with characters you love, and a great sadness when it’s all over.

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An early copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Book Review of If He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin

Magan: If He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin

Book Review of If He Had Been With Me by Laura NowlinIf He Had Been With Me by Laura Nowlin <website | twitter>
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: boy next door, childhood best friends, friends growing apart, tragic love story
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)

Summary: Autumn and Finn are next door neighbors; they’ve always been best friends — experiencing everything together since their mothers are also best friends. Once they reach high school, these once inseparable friends are distant and barely speaking. Though they aren’t close anymore, Autumn still finds herself knowing exactly where Finn is in a room and watching him from afar — in love with him, even if it takes her a while to admit it.

So there’s a girl (Autumn) who lives next to a boy (Phineas, or Finn for short). They were born mere weeks apart and their mothers are best friends. They have dinners together, alternate celebrating holidays at each others’ houses, and know practically every detail about the other person. From Autumn’s point of view (from which If He Had Been With Me is told), we see Finn as a strong, popular, kind, slightly geeky but athletically talented boy. Autumn is his opposite in nearly every way. She’s not popular and stands out amongst the crowd for experimenting with her hair color, dressing a bit oddly, and wearing a tiara as an every day accessory. She’s a misfit.

Somewhere along the way (oh, about the end of middle school) these two inseparable friends grow apart. As they enter high school, their lives still intermingle because their family traditions and weekly dinners continue, but they timidly orbit around one another. Finn and Autumn make independent groups of friends and they rarely talk with the same ease and candor they had been able to. By all appearances, these two friends seem to have drifted apart.

But from Autumn’s perspective, we see how she still yearns for him to do well, silently cheering him on, and how she’s jealous when Finn begins dating someone (even though she, too, is in a relationship). Every piece of their history is so intertwined that I couldn’t help but root them on. I wanted these two best friends to make their way back to one another and fall in love, despite knowing from the very beginning how their story would end — quite tragically.

I promise I’m not ruining any surprises by sharing that Phineas dies in the opening pages of If He Had Been With Me (even the Goodreads summary shares this in the first sentence). Then we hop, skip, and jump back in time to meet these two characters as babies and their history unfolds. I was a bit concerned because I didn’t want what I knew happened to Finn to actually happen, but let me tell you friends, Laura Nowlin absolutely blew me away with her amazing storytelling, character development, and rich settings.

Time and again, I feel let down by YA books because parents are absent in stories (but not here, even if Autumn’s parents have some marital issues they need to work through). Or because heavy issue books seem to dissuade cautious readers from picking up the book (but not here, because even though depression is present and very much plays a role in the story, Nowlin worked it into the story in a way that made me reflect and think, “OH! How clever!” instead of “Oh, I know where this is going…”). And sometimes I’m frustrated because it’s just so hard to connect with characters because I don’t know anything about them and their decisions make zero sense to me because of that (but again, that doesn’t happen here because I felt like I knew absolutely every detail, thought, and memory of these characters).

And the writing. Oh, the writing. So perfect and poetic. I felt like I was reading snippets of Autumn’s personal journal and I couldn’t put it down. Despite that I knew there was a *Romeo and Juliet-esque / tragic love story ending, I couldn’t help but allow myself to be swept away by Autumn and Finn’s story. There really wasn’t anything that I didn’t love, though oddly enough, I was maybe a little caught off guard by the ending. I’m not spoiling anything, but I was surprised by how I thought I knew what was coming and Nowlin still threw in a few punches at the end that left me blink, blink, blinking at my kindle screen. (So be prepared!)

I enjoyed If He had Been With Me so much that I’m adding Laura Nowlin to my auto-read list. Her writing, you guys, is just that sublime. Definitely take a chance on this story — allow yourselves to be caught up in Autumn and Finn’s lives and to root for two childhood best friends to fall in love.

*Please note: I don’t mean to imply that this is a Romeo and Juliet retelling, but I’m merely comparing the stories because even though we know how R & J’s tragic story ends, we still love and appreciate the story for all it’s complexity, beautiful writing, and passion — much in the same way I felt about If He Had Been With Me. Don’t make any assumptions about IHHBWM’s plot, storyline, etc. because of my comparison.

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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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