book cover for Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot

Magan: Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot

book cover for Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot

Even in Paradise by Chelsey Philpot (website | twitter)
Publication Date: October 14, 2014
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 368
Target Audience: Young Adult Fiction
Keywords: boarding school, Nantucket, family death, unlikely friendship
Format Read: ARC from the publisher via Edelweiss. (Thank you!)

Summary: When Julia and Charlotte meet, they become instant friends, always by each other’s side. Though they’re opposites in most every way, Julia and her family embrace Charlie and make her one of their own. Charlie protects Julia from succumbing to her depression when her sister’s death becomes too much to deal with, and she’s by her side when Julia’s planning something outrageous, too.

Charlotte attends St. Anne’s boarding school; she’s befriended her roommate, Rosalie, and two other girls, but she mostly lives in her own little artistic alcove of the school. Late one night, she hears voices stumbling around, drunkenly, outside her dorm window. As she eavesdrops, she realizes one of the girls has been abandoned so she sneaks outside to find Julia. She helps Julia to her dorm room and protects her from the school monitors. A new friendship is begun between these two very unlikely friends after Julia’s drunken debacle.

Charlie, as Julia nicknames her, is on scholarship to St. Anne’s; she’s not one of the privileged girls, doesn’t come from money, comes from a broken family, and she keeps to herself. Julia’s father is a well-known senator, comes from money, has a very close-knit family, and is given a lot of freedom to explore and be a free-spirit. Julia’s family, while so close, hides many secrets; her older sister, Gus, passed away, but no one really discusses it. Charlie realizes Julia needs some closure, but when they take one step forward to learning more about Gus, their friendship soon takes two steps backward.

Charlie becomes Julia’s constant — her support when she’s down and doesn’t want to leave her room, her sidekick when she wants to do something wild. One of the absolutely lovliest aspects of Even in Paradise is how Julia’s family embraces Charlie. They welcome her into their Nantucket beach home, Arcadia, and she easily blends in. Boom, Julia’s dad, becomes a fatherly figure for Charlie; Mummy provides the perfect motherly touch. Nanny sends the girls care packages while they’re at school. Charlotte has such a special bond with each and every family member that really provides so much insight; we see their concern for Julia, how they’re trying to survive after Gus’s death, and how despite all their wealth, they’re so normal and down-to-earth.

Philpot created such unique, rich characters that really popped and came alive, especially through all the ups and downs of Julia and Charlie’s friendship. We see Charlie struggle with being completely absorbed with Julia, but feeling this longing and hurt for the friends she had before. (I was particularly struck by this subtle message of how we don’t have to be just one type of person or friend. We have so many talents and interests and not one singular person will fill all of our needs; we shouldn’t feel like we’re cheating when we explore those other interests with other people. A good friend wouldn’t ask that of us.) She’s scared when she starts to have feelings for Julia’s older brother, Sebastian, but is afraid of what might happen should she act on them. There’s this amazing, lovely balance of Charlotte knowing who she is and where she stands and not lusting after this alternate lifestyle; she is never condemned or asked to separate from who she is to fit the Buchanan mold.

The writing is strong because absolutely every circumstance is handled so maturely. Just as Charlie feels swept away by this family she falls so dearly in love with, so too will Philpot’s readers be longing for every ounce of reading time they can get. One small note is that maybe the cover might lead you to think it’s a summertime book; I kind of wish it were a bit more season-neutral because quite a bit of time is covered throughout the book and doesn’t solely focus on their summer house. (That’s definitely a favorite setting of mine though!)

What a lovely surprise Even in Paradise was. Read it; devour it.

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Magan: The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

book cover for The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan

The Tragedy Paper by Elizabeth LaBan (twitter)
Publication Date: January 8, 2013
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Pages: 312
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: albino character, boarding school, dual perspective
Format Read: Purchased eBook for my kindle

Summary: Duncan unravels the mystery of Tim’s relationship with Vanessa (and their mysterious tragedy) through a series of recordings left behind for Duncan at the beginning of Duncan’s senior year.

Where, oh where, to begin? I’m full of bumbling thoughts about The Tragedy Paper and quite unsure how to best share them with you guys because I’m uncertain if my words are going to be sufficient enough to describe what an incredible read this was.

*deep breath*

The Tragedy Paper is told, essentially, from two perspectives. Tim is perpetually the misfit at every school he has attended because his skin color and hair were different, so his stepfather recommends that he spend the final semester of his senior year at the Irving School because it was where he”found himself” as a student. Tim’s an incredibly smart guy, but no one really gives him the time of day; he doesn’t believe he fits within the confines of the social norm because he’s albino. An accidental run-in before the semester begins with one of the school’s most popular girls, Vanessa, really affects the effort he puts into making friends and putting himself out there. Instead of doing so, he becomes infatuated with this girl despite feeling like he has zero chance of his affection ever being reciprocated.

Upon graduating from the Irving School, seniors leave behind something special for the next year’s seniors to find in their rooms on move-in day. Tim passes along a set of recordings to Duncan and encourages him to listen to his story about an event that occurred the year before. While we’re mostly in present day with Duncan, learning about him as he begins dating someone he’s had his eye on and figuring out that he, too, is essentially a social outcast, readers spend the majority of the book with Duncan, locked in his room as he listens to Tim tell his story through the recordings.

LaBan did an incredible job balancing the back and forth between Duncan and Tim, though I did find myself shaking my fist at the book a time or two because JUST as I felt a big discovery was to be unveiled, the perspective would switch. (Tricky, tricky — of course this kept me up well past my bedtime a time or two.) The setting felt so incredibly perfect for this time of year, too. I was reading The Tragedy Paper on some of the coldest days Texas has seen and it couldn’t have felt more right to be bundled up in blankets as Tim wandered through the snow with Vanessa.

But maybe most striking was the dialogue about Tim. Tim, the albino guy who won’t take care of himself because he is afraid to stand out even more. Tim, the guy who doesn’t think he’s good enough to have someone fall in love with him. The guy who will forget he has a backbone because he’s receiving a bit of recognition from someone popular. Despite the physical differences that may be between Tim and myself, I felt so connected to him because so many times have I felt unworthy of the attention and love I’ve received, even if my doubts were for different reasons.

All of that is to say, I haven’t even begun to mention how strong The Tragedy Paper is from a literary point of view. There’s this incredible focus on what a tragedy is in the senior English class; the students must write a thesis that unpacks their understanding of tragedy. The way this is woven into Tim and Duncan’s stories was remarkable. Really, it just blew me away.

The Tragedy Paper is full of so many strengths: solid writing, a gripping story, a school I wish I’d attended, and characters I felt so incredibly tied to. SURELY this is reason enough for you to pick up this book immediately.

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Estelle: Openly Straight by Bill Konigsberg

Openly Straight by Bill KonigsbergOpenly Straight by Bill Konigsberg ( web | tweet )
Publication Date: May 28, 2013
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic
Pages: 336
Target audience: Young adult
Keywords: LGBT, boarding school, labels, friendship, lies
Format read: ARC paperback from TLA.

Summary: Rafe decides to spend his junior year on the East Coast at an all boys boarding school. What’s so crazy about that? Well, unlike his life in Boulder, he decides not to share with anyone that he is indeed gay in order to give him the chance to strip away all labels and give him the opportunity to be more than his sexual preference.

Openly Straight is a novel that encompassed so many of my favorite things: a flawed main character who felt a lot, supportive and enthusiastic parents, and heart-tugging friendship and romance. And best of all? It made me think.

Basically, I want to hug and squeeze this book until I can’t anymore.

Rafe is pretty lucky when he comes out to his parents. They are completely supportive; they barely blink an eyelash. The liberal town of Boulder, Colorado responds pretty much the same way. His teachers want his thoughts on the gay movement, he trains to give speeches to others about sexuality, and his family surprises him with an awesome coming out party. Life is pretty much hunky dory. We’ve all heard people’s hurtful experiences regarding coming out, so it’s kind of hard to believe that Rafe has anything to complain about, right?

Well. Wrong. He feels totally pigeonholed by his sexuality, and decides to go off to a boarding school on the East Coast in hopes of wiping the slate clean. He won’t exactly be back in the closet because he knows he’s gay… he just won’t really tell the peers in his all-boy school what his deal is.

The idea of going to a brand new place and being a whole new you is pretty tempting. Of course, part of it, especially in Rafe’s case, isn’t awesome because he is kind of lying in some instances. But in others, he’s finding out things about himself that he never knew. Like maybe the jock isn’t always “the jock” and maybe he can actually keep up with a bunch of guys playing football in the quad.

The challenges though… outweigh that lack of boundary Rafe feels. And as a reader, you are just waiting for everything to blow up in his face. His parents are confused by this “phase”, he’s making up stories about his closest girl friend, and this intimate friendship with Ben, a soft-spoken jock who loves to read and have deep conversations, is definitely in jeopardy, especially as he and Rafe continue to get closer. Is Ben gay? Are they just best friends? The lines are so blurred at times, that it was really hard for me to figure it out. The possibility of heartbreak is so palpable.

Konigsberg also included pieces from Rafe’s writing class — a great way for us to get this character’s back story but also to see him grow as a writer. (I adored the teacher’s comments so much because so many times what he was saying was criticism I have about what I’m reading: “show don’t tell!”) Mr. Scarborough also gives him room to think about his choices to be someone new at the school, and subtley offers some helpful perspective. He would definitely have been one of my favorite teachers too.

I feel absolutely so much love for this book that my heart is actually seizing up as I write this review. From Rafe’s refreshing narrating to watching him painstakingly make blunders and attempt to get himself out of them, Openly Straight unveils a different kind of journey towards self-discovery — one filled with laughs, love, late nights, and finding out how to balance all the parts that make you you.

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