book cover and review of Melissa Kantor's Better Than Perfect

Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor • Magan Reviews

Melissa Kantor's Better Than Perfect

Better Than Perfect by Melissa Kantor [twitter • website]
Publication Date: February 17, 2015
Publisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 336
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: college preparation, Harvard, parent in rehab, cheating
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: Juliet’s picture-perfect life goes downhill when her parents split, her dad moves out, her mom tries to pop pills and drink away her depression, and Juliet kisses a guy that’s not her boyfriend. She takes on every responsibility and activity she can to keep herself busy and moving forward, but she begins to realize that perhaps what she’s working so hard for isn’t what she wants.

• • •

Juliet’s perfect life has gone to crap. Her parents have separated, and her dad’s officially moved to the city in his own apartment. Her mom can’t handle the change and Juliet notices she’s drinking more and popping pills frequently. This eventually leads to Juliet finding her on the bathroom floor in a barely conscious state, uncertain if the overdose was intentional or accidental, and left alone to tackle her tumultuous senior year while her mom recovers. While she’s dealing with her grief, her boyfriend is out of the country on vacation with his family. She runs to her best friend’s work where she waits until she’s able to get off work; Juliet gets wrapped up with the new band playing at the country club that night, and one thing leads to another and …she kisses Declan, the sexiest guy in the group.

Very clearly Juliet just doesn’t know how to deal with all of these things piling up in her life; it was quite a lot to handle, especially once school begins and attending Harvard with her boyfriend is her main focus. Her AP classes, extra tutoring, and SAT prep-sessions felt like an insane amount for a girl to handle, but Juliet adds to that by joining a band (without ever really noticing that she could sing before?). I think the key is that she must have been gifted more than 24 hours in a day because I don’t know how she would have balanced it all otherwise. She thinks the kiss (ahem, make-out session) with Declan won’t matter until he enrolls in her school and becomes Public Enemy #1 that she can’t seem to avoid. (Did I mention she joins his band?)

All of last year, I certainly felt like I was fighting to keep my head above the water and Dori’s “Just keep swimming” mantra became my own. But there’s a point where something being plausible begins to feel unrealistic when a certain line is crossed. Perhaps what kept me reading was seeing if Juliet was next in line for an emotional breakdown or panic attack. There were times I wasn’t sure I loved her character  — she wasn’t always the nicest, particularly to her father, and the major life realizations she had felt so different from where she was headed that I just wish she would have had more backbone to not follow everyone else’s dreams and to speak up for herself a lot sooner. Juliet tried to live up to crazy high standards, but was critical when people seemed to be functioning at that level (her boyfriend’s mom). The whole cheating topic isn’t really addressed either; things worked out a little too easily for Juliet in this regard and that didn’t really sit well for me.

Better Than Perfect was my first Kantor novel, and I think I would be more inclined to recommend it if the story had felt a little more authentic or tightly pieced together, and possibly if more time had been spent really smoothing out Juliet’s character. It’s so much fun to root for a character going through a bad situation, but when she seems really judgmental and needs a lot of personal growth, it makes her successes a little bittersweet.

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Twisted Fate by Norah Olson | Magan Reviews

book cover for Twisted Fate by Norah Olson

Twisted Fate by Norah Olson [twitter]
Publication Date: January 20, 2015
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 272
Target Audience: Young Adult
Keywords: YA mystery, boy next door, sisters, online privacy
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)

Summary: When a new boy, Graham, moves in next door, sisters Ally and Syd both develop crushes on him. But things don’t add up: Why did Graham move to town? Why’s he always videoing people? Why’s he sporadically in school? One sister only falls harder while the other begins to piece together a few disturbing clues.

•••

Sisters Sydney and Ally are picking blueberries when their new neighbors pull into the driveway next door. Out steps Graham, a boy Syd immediately thinks is a little weird but Ally finds attractive. They make small talk and both girls walk away with crushes blooming in their hearts. As the days tick by (and the multiple-point-of-view chapters), Ally falls head over heels for Graham; he flatters her and pays attention in a way no one else does. But Sydney becomes wary. Things just aren’t adding up and his story just doesn’t quite make sense.

Of course when Sydney attempts to discuss her hesitations with her sister, Ally assumes Syd is jealous.

Ally is the good girl — the people pleaser, always doing something for everyone else, never stepping out of line. Syd is wild, adventurous, constantly getting called to the counselor’s office, and is Ally’s opposite in nearly every way. Graham plays both girls, making them feel like they’re the most interesting person in the world. Though Syd is nervous about him, she can’t help but also fall under his spell when he compliments her.

Because of the different POVs — Syd, Ally, Graham, Graham’s step-mother, a cop — there’s this sinking feeling Syd is right and you’re just waiting for all the little clues to add up and make sense. (I was also really hesitant for them to. My suspicions and the truth were pretty heavy.) There’s something to be on alert for, but what?

From the mysterious, “whodunnit” stand point, I really enjoyed trying to figure out where Olson was going with Twisted Fate. I didn’t want to stop reading because I just knew the clue I was looking for would be on the next page. But on the flip side, the way the story was infiltrated with so many different perspectives, I found myself flipping back and forth between chapters a lot, particularly between Syd and Ally. (This later made sense why, but I kept thinking I’d missed something along the way.)

Twisted Fate has an ending that left me feeling uncomfortable (because it really made my mama-bear come alive) and scratching my head. Weeks after finishing, I’m still left wondering how everything would have tied up the way it did: Was that really possible? Huh? In comparison to a book such as We Were Liars, I felt everything tied up in a way I could accept even though it blew my mind. Olson delivers an extraordinarily creepy story that really had me hooked and made me have several “Aha!” moments pertaining to personal safety.

How’s that for making you wonder what happens?

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Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass | Magan Reviews

Love and Other Theories by Alexis Bass

Love & Other Theories by Alexis Bass [twitter | website]
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
Publisher: HarperTeen
Pages: 384
Target Audience: Mature Young Adult
Keywords: girls’ rules for dating, girl code, sex and teenagers, senior year of H.S.
Format Read: ARC from Publisher (A BIG thank you!)

Summary: Aubrey and her girlfriends think they have dating, relationships, and guys all figured out. There are certain dos and don’t that you must follow or else everything falls apart. But what if you’re following those rules and your relationships still crumble? Aubrey’s beliefs are put to a test when Nathan unexpectedly bursts into her life.

Δ

Rules: Aubrey and her three best friends live and breathe by them. They (think they) know precisely what makes guys want them because they don’t get super caught up in labels and being too needy like girlfriends do. They don’t fall in love and they let the guys think they’re always in control.

Aubrey’s been very dedicated to the rules; she has only a few more months to get through until she’s off to college. She’s focused and all things are going according to plan until Nathan transfers to her school from sunny San Diego. Aubrey is instantly attracted to him…so much so that they skip part of their first day of school together and spend it driving around and getting acquainted in the back seat of Nathan’s BMW. For both, this seems out-of-character; they both have goals and dreams and are headed to a top-notch college. As they continue to fool around, Nathan seems to want to classify their relationship, but Aubrey can’t refuse the rules so she pushes him away, thinking that’s what he really wants.

As a reader, I could tell that Nathan wasn’t one of those guys who just wanted to have sex and move on to the next girl. He was so genuine and good. (Mostly.) But I’ll be damned. Aubrey’s rules made it feel like I was watching two people struggle against a bungee chord — they kept pushing and fighting to be these people that they just weren’t. I was dreading the moment the chord snapped and sent them flying back to reality. (And oh, did it snap.)

The rules made life so overly complicated for Aubrey and her girlfriends. They felt appalling because the girls think they’re empowering women, but at the heart of it, each of them was repressing feelings and being used. They didn’t allow themselves to say how they really felt, didn’t give guys the opportunity to really get to know them, and didn’t take the chance that someone would want to listen to what they had to say. They neglected to realize that maybe, just maybe, there would be a guy out there who had the same interests as them and not all guys see every girl as a piece of ass.

Aubrey’s life was imbalanced as she fell for Nathan but tried to act like she didn’t care. Nathan misinterprets Aubrey’s aloof attitude, doesn’t push her to figure out what they both want, and makes some terrible decisions. She had big lessons to learn that belittling herself to attract a guy wouldn’t be the key to keeping him around, and it wouldn’t be beneficial for her well-being either. Did she really want to be with someone who never knew the real her?

I’m positive there are girls and women who need to read Love and Other Theories because they could benefit from Aubrey’s story. It was painful to see her struggle and the rules really infuriated me. But I also wondered: Where were her parents? Why weren’t they keeping closer tabs on her (sure, she’s a senior, but they were so incredibly distant)? Who was there to teach Aubrey that empowerment doesn’t equal martyring your wants and needs.

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negative book review of the moon and more by sarah dessen

Magan: The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

negative book review of the moon and more by sarah dessenThe Moon and More by Sarah Dessen ( web| tweet )
Publication Date: July 16, 2013
Publisher: Viking Juvenile
Pages: 435
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: making college plans, family struggles, love triangle
Format read: ARC from Publisher (Thank you!)
Previous books reviewed by author: Along for the Ride, Lock and Key, This Lullaby (E), This Lullaby (M)

Summary: Post-graduation, Emaline finds herself struggling with what to do with her life. Does she attend the Ivy League school her biological father thinks she ought to attend or does she go to the state school where her boyfriend Luke will be?

I’m going to mix things up a little bit for this review because I have so, so many thoughts about The Moon and More. 

Pluses:

+ The family dynamic is really strong from the details of Emaline’s biological father’s lack of responsibility to her stepdad’s strong involvement in her life and the craziness that is the family realty business. Her sisters, Amber and Margo, are polar opposites but are awesome minor characters that really added character depth to the story. Oh, and there’s also Beji, Emaline’s half-brother, who is ten years old and idolizes his older sister; he’s also extremely analytical and quite brilliant at solving problems.

+ Emaline was a very strong main character. She’s a smart, level-headed character that’s very driven (to an extent). Confusion creeps into her life when she begins to question what she wants to do with her life. Her biological father and the new city boy in town, Theo, want Emaline to expect more for herself, but she doesn’t want to grow out of Colby by going to some fancy school that will separate her from her family and lead her to have tons of debt.

+ Revisiting Colby was a delight, even though I felt I should have remembered more details than I did from Along for the Ride than I did. Maybe a re-read of that would have gotten me in the right frame of mind and I would have felt even more connected to the story.

Minuses:

– I really struggled with the timeline and sequence of events. There were areas that felt really bumpy to me and I felt they could have used a bit more finessing. (Disclaimer: I did read an ARC for The Moon and More so some things could have been changed in the final print version.)

– The language. One thing I’ve noticed about Dessen’s writing is that no matter the character, she uses the same dialect and phrasing for every. single. one of her characters. Every one. I almost started circling the repetitious parts so I could visually see if I had a plausible reason to be upset. In the end, I realized (sadly) that if someone had read The Moon and More to me in a monotoned voice with zero inflection or character changes, there would have been moments I would not have noticed who was speaking because the characters were indistinguishable.

– The length. The sequence of events in the beginning occur pretty rapidly. BAM BAM BAM — Emaline breaks up with her boyfriend Luke and begins dating Theo. And then things began to creep along for me. While I love following characters around and having a sense of what their real lives are like, there was just a bit too much of that for me. So much that it made the rest of the story drag and the end resolution felt a bit rushed and anticlimactic.

– While I mentioned how much I loved the inclusion of all the family members, I felt there were maybe too many characters to focus on here. There’s a whole storyline about a local artist, the crazy woman who is trying to film a documentary about him, Emaline’s best friend Morris (who I never really got), and so on. This was definitely a story that focused primarily on Emaline’s life and moving forward, but some things (like the kind of love-triangle) weighed the story down.

My book-loving-heart was so full of hope going in to The Moon and More, but I wish I felt a bit more satisfied after finishing it. In the future, I hope Dessen pushes herself to emphasize the important elements of the story, maintain focus, and to become a more diverse writer by breaking the mold and creating unique characters and language.

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book cover for The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf

Magan: The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf

book cover for The Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy RafThe Symptoms of My Insanity by Mindy Raf (website | twitter)
Publication Date: April 18, 2013
Publisher: Dial Books for Young Readers
Pages: 384
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: sick parent, best friend trouble, boy drama, chaotic teenage life
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)

Summary: Izzy has a lot going on in her life — family, friend, and romance-wise — so much that she doesn’t really know how to handle it. She’s also a hypochondriac who looks up all the symptoms she feels. The problem is, in real life, there’s no easy, curable way to put all the dramatic pieces of her life back together.

Izzy looks up every symptom she feels to determine whether or not she’s sick. She’s a hypochondriac.

But, really, beneath the surface of all the pretend illnesses Izzy could possibly maybe have, she’s got a whole lot going on in her life:

  • a mother who refuses to accept she’s sick and needs help
  • a potential new boyfriend who wants to sprint around the bases faster than Izzy feels comfortable with
  • three art pieces to start/finish for a chance to study in Italy
  • a best friend who is acting completely out of character
  • an ex-best friend who seems to want to be friends again

Friends, there was a lot to absorb in The Symptoms of My Insanity. Izzy was under so much pressure and her passiveness didn’t help to sort through any of the tasks that were building up in her life. As an outsider, I wanted to scream at Izzy to run in the other direction when her best friend, Jenna, throws her into the midst of set design for the drama club. After all I’ve listed above, don’t you agree Izzy has enough going on? Sure, Izzy is definitely a pushover and should have stood up for herself (countless times), but it was painful to see the tornado of disaster that was about to sweep through Izzy’s life. Especially when she was trying to balance so much she couldn’t see the destruction heading her way.

Ultimately, I walked away feeling glad that I had finished Mindy Raf’s book, but I still wish she hadn’t put Izzy through quite so much. Reflecting on the story, I wish Raf would have left out the entire Izzy-starts-dating-Blake storyline (in which he’s a jerk with zero backbone and does something pretty craptastic to Izzy). I wasn’t entirely happy with the resolution here and it seemed unnecessarily dramatic (especially when there was a kind, nerdy boy patiently waiting for Izzy to recognize him as more than a friend). The subtle side romance would have been so much sweeter without the hasty relationship with Blake thrown into the mix.

In real life it seems when one terrible thing happens, a ton of others seem to follow. True as that may be, Izzy probably would have had a nervous breakdown if her story were real. And though things did end well, after so much negative buildup I would have liked to have reveled in the ending a bit more to see how things played out long-term in Izzy’s life. (I felt like I closed the book with a heavy heart.)

Sure, I definitely enjoy drama in books, but I am a firm believer that enough is enough for there to be a sense of realism. Raf’s writing was meticulous, but a ‘less is more’ approach would have helped me relate to Izzy in a more meaningful way instead of feeling like I was approaching a train wreck.

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Book Cover for Trinkets by Kirsten Smith

Magan: Trinkets by Kirsten Smith

Book Cover for Trinkets by Kirsten SmithTrinkets by Kirsten Smith <website • twitter>
Publication Date: March 12, 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Pages: 288
Target audience: Young Adult
Keywords: shoplifting, unlikely friendships, cheating parent, alcoholic mother
Format read: ARC received via NetGalley (Thank you!)

Summary: Moe, Tabitha and Elodie are three girls very unlikely to ever form a friendship — that is, until they meet in a Shopaholics Anonymous meeting and bond over their one similarity: they’re all thieves.

 

Elodie, Moe, and Tabitha have one thing in common.

They’re shoplifters.

Aside from this (ginormous) fact, their lives couldn’t be more different. Elodie lives with her father and step-mother (whom she can’t stand) in Portland, where they’ve just relocated after her father’s remarriage and her mother’s death. She’s the new girl no one knows with one friend she doesn’t have much in common with. Moe and her older brother, Marc, live with their aunt who gained custody of them after their parents died when she was seven. Moe dyes her hair cherry-red and hangs out with a bunch of druggies. And then there’s Tabitha — the legendary popular girl who dates the boy everyone fawns over. But underneath her perfect exterior, she’s going crazy that her dad has endless affairs and how everyone (her mother, her friends, everyone) is always faking their way through life.

How do these three very different girls connect with one another? Through Shopaholics Anonymous.

Because they’re in such vulnerable positions and have to open up about their lives in SA, they let down their guards and speak truthfully and openly with one another about their home lives. (This is a big deal since none of their “BFFs” know any of this personal information.) While SA is supposed to lead them to understand why they want to steal and how to stop doing it, they band together and try to make the best steal after each meeting. Most weeks, after they’ve compared their loot, they spend time hanging out (in inconspicuous places where classmates won’t notice them together).

Tabitha, Elodie, and Moe’s stories are knitted together from each of their points of view. Elodie writes in verse, while Moe jots her entries down in a journal-like format, and Tabitha’s are more structured and formal. The different POVs move the story forward at a quick, enjoyable pace that makes the timing and new friendships seem plausible and realistic. One of the highlights is seeing three very outwardly different girls bond together, especially since many of their interior struggles are so much the same, each having faced abandonment or loss in some way.

The struggle is finding a way out of the cycle of their routine bad behavior. How do you stop doing something that fills the gap in your life? That makes you feel better? That gives you a high like nothing else? And what happens to this unlikely trio’s friendship when the twelve week program has come to an end?

Trinkets handles some pretty serious subject matter (death of a parent, a demanding boyfriend, remarriage, and scandalous affairs) in a manner that didn’t feel overwhelming, heavy, or overly dramatic. Smith maintained a light-hearted feel by placing the emphasis on friendship and letting the heavier issues play more of a secondary role. A huge takeaway for me was realizing that we all have “bad stuff” going on in our lives, but we can choose how we move forward and deal with those situations.

So the question is: does their unlikely friendship help these girls move past the negative circumstances in their lives or do they continue to be lured into thievery to seek attention? Guess you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out!

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